17 November 2006

How will I know?

…when it’s time to move on to Buddhism, to Confucianism, to Daoism, to Christianity, to Judaism, to Islam?

Humility, patience, sincerity,
nonviolence, uprightness, purity,
devotion to one’s spiritual teacher,
constancy, self-control,

dispassion toward objects of the senses,
freedom from the I-sense, insight
into the evils of birth,
sickness, old age, and death,

detachment, absence of clinging
to son, wife, family, and home,
an unshakable equanimity
in good fortune or in bad,

an unwavering devotion to me
above all things, an intense
love of solitude, distaste
for involvement in worldly affairs,

persistence in knowing the Self
and awareness of the goal of knowing—
all this is called true knowledge;
what differs from it is called ignorance.

Bhagavad Gita, 13.7-11

I was in Swami Sarvadevanada’s tiny office, trying to understand more about the specific elements of the Kali puja when I tried to ask him some personal questions again. Old habits die hard.

“What was your name…before?” I asked.

The swami was behind his desk.

“Why do you want to know that?”

“I don’t know. But I do.”

Cool fall air was coming in the window behind him. There was a long pause before he answered. “We want to forget our past identity. This is a monastic identity. I am a monk. I am for the whole world. My name is Sarvadevananda; I am a priest ‘of the consciousness of all gods.’ That means universal. I don’t give any attachment to my family.”

“None at all?”

“No. Wherever I am, that is my family, eh? So, to get over our personal identities of little things of life, we left that (his original name) back and I don’t want to go back to that identity and remember ‘Oh I belong to this. I was born here and this and that.’”

“And if you miss--”

“What shall you miss? If you get something higher, you don’t miss.”

I tried to imagine doing this to my family: I just couldn’t. But then, I didn’t grow up in India or in a household where religion comes before everything so I can’t possibly get an accurate sense of the meaning or the impact of Swami Sarvadevenanda’s decision on his family. I do know that Swamiji’s so firm about the insignificance of names that it’s been the source of one of our only intractable disagreements.

I’ve had Swami Sarvadevenanda (along with several other people) fact-check everything I’ve written and will write about Hinduism and he’s asked for only one change I’ve refused to make: Swamiji wanted me to remove every mention of his name, Sarvadevananda, except for the very first time I introduce him, and simply refer to him as “the swami.” The reason: the message is what’s important, the message of Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, not the person delivering the message.

I said I understood his point but I thought it’d seem awkward and a bit odd if he became this anonymous shadow rather than the flesh and blood person that he is. And it’s that flesh and blood person who is my teacher. Okay, so it’s really (according to Vedanta) the teachings of Ramakrishna, of Swami Vivekananda, of Brahman coming through this teacher sitting in front of me in his orange robes and big glasses but, still, he is the teacher before me and it’s his way of communicating these ideas that brought me to the Vedanta Society in the first place.

I decided to move from the personal family history to safer ground.“What does – Sarvadevananada mean?”

“First word ‘Sarva’ means ‘all’. ‘Deva’ means god, gods. And ‘ananda’ means joy, bliss. So you have: ‘the bliss of all the gods’. That means you are reminded you are not a man, not a woman, you are (imperishable consciousness) and you are awakening to that consciousness.”

I looked down at my hands. Ink from my pen was on my fingers. “I’m so grateful to you for what you’ve been giving…”

Swamiji interrupted me with a wave of his hand. “Spiritual life is like that, to share, eh? If you eat good food, you want to share with others.” He laughed.

I said, “All the different temples I went to and ...I end up here, a temple where Ramakrishna has done, obviously in a much deeper way, what I’m trying to do.” (Ramakrishna spent some time practicing both Christianity and Islam.)

“I think that is the way God is taking you in different experiences and brought to the right place. That’s all.”

In some of the classes, the swami had discussed other religions so I said, “Buddhism has come up a little bit and you’ve talked about the point of religion is to see God, to have that real sense of a Presence. Doesn’t – again, I don’t know that much about Buddhism yet but doesn’t Buddhism say there is no god?”

“Yes. But the question is the definition of God. What do you mean by God?” He paused for effect. “Buddhism says: don’t talk about it. Buddha took the Vedantic idea – he (Buddha) was born Vedantic – he said: ‘Look at the world. What is permanent? By the time you sit for some moment, the thing changes. Every fraction of a second everything is changing. So, if everything is changing, it gives the illusion of reality.’ For example if you take a fan blade: when it moves very fast you don’t see the blade. Does it mean that there is no blade?”


“Vedanta says negate, negate, to come to one Absolute Reality.” The swami was talking about the Hindu idea of going through everything your senses can perceive to realize, one-by-one, that these were not the Divine. “Buddha didn’t say that. He said only: ‘Be a lamp unto you.’ What Buddha said – he didn’t want to get caught into that trap of God, God, God, what is this, that? He wanted to emphasize: go back to the source of the light - consciousness. Eh? So, his language was different (but) go to the realization— When he got the realization, look at his face. He was beaming in joy. Where the joy comes from if there is no joy inside? So what’s the difference between (the Hindu definition of God and the Consciousness of Buddhism)? The effect we see the same. So the words are just labels.”

I then brought up a subject that had been on my mind since I started this whole project. “So how will I know when it’s time to go on to another (faith?) If I’m going to do this work, at some point I have to say, ‘Okay, it’s time to turn my attention to the next tradition.’ What is your suggestion about how I will know?”

“This is your project. Writing about this is one thing, that’s a project. But your spiritual sadhana, you should have to go deep with one thought, one idea, one practice. Otherwise, it is like digging the ground to get water: you dig ten feet here, you dig ten feet there and you never get any water. You have to be persistent in going down and down. Your spiritual life should be dedicated to one idea, one principle.”

“But can’t this (project) be of service?” I asked.

“This can be a great service,” the swami said, “to bring this concept is a great thing because harmony is the need of this age. So, you should have to study the others and put their views forward with as much emotion and connection in that particular practice as you can. Here is a person, Ramakrishna, he individually practiced all these religions and came to the same conclusion: that all roads lead to the same conclusion.”

“What is your suggestion about how will I know when it’s time?”

“You’ll have to figure it out.”

I laughed. “I knew you were gonna say that. I was just kind of hoping there’d be something more, I don’t know, you know….”

“You pray inside and say: ‘Oh Lord guide me from my heart’ and your mind will say. Or some opportunity will come or, as you say, you didn’t know about us or anything and you happened to be in Kumbha Mela. So, I am saying something like that may come up and God will show you the path.”

Sri Ramakrishna & Swami Vivekananda

The Hollywood Vedanta Society main office and chapel

15 November 2006


Children – they force you to deal, don’t they?

Do any action you must do,
since action is better than inaction;
even the existence of your body
depends on necessary actions.

The whole world becomes a slave
to its own activity, Arjuna;
if you want to be truly free,
perform all actions as worship.

Bhagavad Gita 3.8-3.9

Luke, Matt, and I sat at the breakfast table eating. I told them all about the Kali puja and the overwhelming display of food at the Swaminarayan New Year’s celebration.

“Well, Mom,” Matt offered, “I’m sure when you get through with your spiritual quest you’ll know what religion to choose.”

From the other side of the table, Luke attacked: “She’s not on a spiritual quest. She’s on a fake spiritual quest. Maybe once she’s done, then she’ll start to figure it out.” Luke turned to me for verification, “Right, Mom?”

I said nothing at all back.

And the vacuum was filled with fraternal verbal swordplay over whether what I’m doing is real or fake and what real or fake means anyway and whether the other could possibly understand anything at all in the first place and getting words in “edgewise” and who was interrupting whom.

I was taken aback by Luke’s words. It was almost like he was asking me to reassure him I wasn’t actually on a personal spiritual search but just engaged in a safe exercise in journalism - the look on his face, his full blue-eyed question, the morning light on the tiled floor, on the corner of the yellow table cloth, the complete momentary pause in the conversation.

Why can’t I answer? Is what I’m doing fake? And what could fake possibly mean when I’ve dropped everything in my life to do this and only this?

I have to admit I’m on some kind of personal search. If “fake” means I don’t know whether I’ll get anywhere, if “fake” means I might not get to any definitive place, any definitive faith by the end of this, if “fake” means I might find out I don’t have the ability to be what people call “spiritual” within me, then I guess I must accept that label as possible. What I’m doing is nothing more than what every single human being, aware of their own mortality, must go through in one form or another.

But I want something more from this than digging up my own personal belief system. I want to understand what’s happening in a world beset by violence that claims religious doctrine as its source and that obsession of mine is very real. And, whether global or just personal, I do have faith that my effort will be worth something in the end even if I can’t know right now in what way precisely. That faith isn’t fake. That faith I have. That faith is real.