When in the early 1960's it became clear that I wanted to leave Hollywood, I cast about for somewhere else where I could live and work. Such a transfer proved to be more difficult than I would have imagined. I had thought that my many years of residence at the Vedanta Society of Southern California and my reputation as a productive person there would make it easy to find a new place. Nothing of the kind. By 1964 I was a sannyasin, which made me more difficult to place than, say, a promising novice, and fifty years old. What center would want to take responsibility for me, what head of center, since I would not be his disciple and might not prove malleable?
My first idea had been to stay on in India after sannyas. This I endeavored to do. I felt my qualifications as editor and writer would help me find a post easily, perhaps in the book department at Madras or with Advaita Ashrama at Calcutta and Mayavati. These centers publish books and revues in English. What could be more attractive to their direction than to have on the staff someone who possessed English as his mother tongue?
The preliminary step, of course, must be to obtain Swami Prabhavananda's permission. This, I knew, would not be easy to do, given his strong opinion as to the septic qualities of India. And he would feel my wish to absent myself from Hollywood a reflection on himself. Besides — I've never known — perhaps he loved and counted on me more than he revealed. We were at Madras together in mid-January 1964. I chose Maharaj's birthday — dear to Prabhavananda, when he would be in a mellow mood — to make the request. It was in the early morning. First I went to a flower-stand before the great Kapaleeswar Temple and bought a garland of Swami's and Maharaj's favorite flowers — white tuberoses. Back at the Math I found Swami Prabhavananda in his room, upset, not very well. I felt the gesture somehow insincere but knew I must go through with it anyway. Placing the garland around my guru's neck, I knelt at his feet and asked his permission to transfer to India permanently. He looked disgusted and took off the garland. "Have your experience for some time," he said, "and when you fall sick, then come back."
But despite feelers put out to the heads of both publishing branches, little enthusiasm was expressed for my availability. Yes, Swami Vivekananda visualized an exchange between East and West, but so far it has worked out mainly in one direction. I have discussed this subject in Chapter Eight. I can quite understand Indian reluctance to accept a western member on the staff. Such a foreigner will not be used to the austerities of Indian ashrama life. The foreign brother will probably resent India's inefficiency and might perhaps try to institute reforms. He is bound to be a bother, and allowance will always have to be made for his particular requirements. His health will probably decline, along with his enthusiasm for India, and having some available financial resources at his disposal — which very few Indian sadhus possess — he will simply fly in due course back to his homeland.
I lingered on in India all through the torrid spring and summer of 1964, hoping some call would come. I felt myself to be a great catch for some center. But no one seemed interested. What brought an end to this six months' spell of availability was a horrible bout of parathyphoid. It came on in Kamarpukur where I was staying while taking photographs for my little book Ramakrishna's Teachings Illustrated. I had gone out early one morning to record country scenes at Tajpur, near Ramakrishna's birthplace. Indian hospitality demanded that the householder at the locality where I was photographing should offer me some refreshment. There was a delay, and I noticed a child rushing with a container in hand to a nearby house. Soon he was back and soon a cup of tea was before me, half tea and half hot milk, as it is drunk in Bengal. I understood that the child had been sent to fetch milk from a neighbor and wondered if there had been time to properly boil it. I accepted the tea as civility bid me to, but with misgivings. The next day I was sicker than I have ever been in my life, with parathyphoid. Local aid was mustered, but I got worse, and someone had to be sent the two-hundred kilometer round trip to Calcutta to bring antibiotics.
This experience showed me how well founded was the Indian's reluctance to take me on as a permanent worker and how susceptible to oriental bugs I was. So, abandoning my project to stay in India — "when you fall sick, then come back" — I turned my reluctant steps in the direction of Hollywood. I had nowhere else to go.
Not exactly nowhere else to go. There had been a hint that I might see whether I could find a place at the Centre Védantique Ramakrichna at Gretz in France. I had met Swami Ritajananda years before at Madras. A photo taken at the Sri Ramakrishna Math there in January, 1953, appears in my book A Yankee and the Swamis. Swami Ritajananda is present, together with about twenty-five others who were at Madras at that time, including Swami Shankarananda, then President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, Swami Kailashananda, President of the Madras Math; and two brahmacharis who later as sannyasins were to hold important posts: Swami Budhananda, eventually President of Advaita Ashrama and later head of the New Delhi center; and Swami Swahananda, now leader of the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Later on Swami Ritajananda and I became good friends when he was assistant minister at Hollywood in 1959-1961. He took over in Gretz as President in late 1961. He had told Swami Anamananda when the latter had stopped at Gretz on his way back from India in early1964 that Gretz needed a manager. This news had been passed on to me.
But to me at that time Gretz seemed unattractive as a future assignment. I cannot understand my reluctance now, more than twenty-five years later, for I have been happier at Gretz than anywhere else I have ever lived. The main objections in my mind when I demurred were, first, that Gretz operated as a farm, and second, that it gained its livelihood by functioning as a guest-taking ashrama. Both features seemed forbidding. Forced rural experiences as a boy to make me, as my parents hoped, more of a red-blooded all-American extrovert had marked me with a dislike for domestic animals, manure piles, unpleasant chores, muddy boots, and chapped hands. The second aspect of Gretz was equally unalluring. To be caught up in what was essentially a sort of resort hotel would mean living in the flurry of constant company. It would mean the end of the separation I had pretty well managed to maintain in Hollywood between office and residence, between occupational activities and some modicum of a personal life.
Gretz functions as an ashrama on a full-time basis, open the year around. It is the only western Ramakrishna center which does so. That is to say, as a domain to which any suitable individual, interested in deepening his spiritual life, may come for a longer or shorter stay. He is expected to pay a modest sum for room and board and to help with ashrama chores as much as he can. He is expected to be present in the chapel during meditation periods, to read in the library, and to profit from holy company. The pattern established in most western centers was otherwise. The typical center consisted of a city house where the swami-in-charge, or guru, lived, accompanied perhaps by one or two resident devotees or monastics, and where daily worship was performed and classes and meditation periods held at stated hours open to the public. The rest of the time the center remained shut, rather as a private house, except for callers coming on rendezvous arranged in advance. An occasional devotee might be accepted to stay over night now and then, and several intimates invited for Sunday lunch. On feast-days many might come for pujas and prasad. But this type of center never functioned as a guesthouse, as an ashrama.
I have written in Chapter Nine about the ashrama idea and how heartily I now approve of it as a means of catering to the needs of the suffers of today's world. I believe that it should become the standard pattern for Vedanta work in the West. And some western centers are now moving toward this model. But conducting an ashrama exacts real sacrifices from those concerned with its management: broken reservations, late arrivals, early departures, catering to persons with dietary, physical, and psychological peculiarities, constant demands for the attention of the Swami, and the sociability which is the solace of many visitors. Many guests prove to be older people — often single women — who are come to the ashrama for distraction and human warmth as well as for spiritual benefit. Well, providing "soulagement" — human comfort — as Swami Siddheswarannda often remarked, is a noble function also! All that said, an ashrama serves another real purpose because Ramakrishna centers in the West are so few and far between. Devotees in farflung locations can come to an ashrama once or twice a year for a period of intense spiritual concentration. Otherwise their relationship with the living faith may consist solely in correspondence and reading.
It seems strange to me now that when I resisted the idea of Gretz I hadn't listed as a third difficulty that of language. Living and working in France would require a knowledge of French. Oh yes, I'd studied French in school, but there's a great difference between textbook exercises and operating with a foreign people in their own tongue, especially if part of one's work consists in pronouncing homilies and giving lectures.
Well, I went back to Hollywood reluctantly in the autumn of 1964 and was no doubt received there with equal reluctance. During my long absence the work I had formerly done had been absorbed by others; I had no wish to reassume it anyway. As related in Chapter Four, Swami Prabhavananda soon considered me a dangerous dissident, and I was, for my part, uneasy with him. I stayed on in this state of uncertainty for eighteen months which, counting the year passed in India, meant that I had suffered a directionless state for some two and a half years. It was an agonizing period and brought me an everlasting sympathy for the many "boatpeople" in this world who are obliged to break old ties and start out anew.
What to do, where to go? There had been slight stirrings of interest from one or two other American centers, but no real welcome. I decided I'd try India again, live or die, or if Swami Ritajananda would accept me, transfer to the Centre Védantique Ramakrichna in France.
It was in February, 1966, two years after sannyas. A letter arrived from Swami Ritajananda saying that he had discussed the matter with friends and that he'd take me at Gretz on a year's trial basis.
I had spent the weeks awaiting the resolution of this question listening to a French language course recorded on phonograph records and trying to make a little progress in that tongue, occasionally interrupting my studies by listening to the nostalgic tones of that masterpiece, Asher Bilk's "Stranger on the Shore". Yes, and making up my mind that whatever came, I was a sannyasin, had nothing to fear, was in God's keeping, and would be faithful to my commitments, come what might.
But what of the Centre Védantique Ramakrichna at this time, in 1966? I had spent the month of August there two years before, on the return from India. Its story was familiar to me. The condition of the Gretz center in 1966 was not very reassuring.
As we know, Swami Vivekananda had visited Paris several times at the turn of the century and had greatly admired French culture. But he had started no work there. A few years later Swami Abhedananda is said to have organized a group in Paris, but no trace of this is discernable today. Romain Rolland's books on Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda had been published in 1929, and Dhan Gopal Mukerjee's The Face of Silence had appeared in French in 1932. Throughout the 1930's Swami Yatiswarananda worked in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, and France as an itinerant lecturer on Vedanta philosophy. Jean Herbert, whose efforts were supported by Jospehine MacLeod, was bringing out French translations of Swami Vivekananda's works and the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna. On March 30, 1936, the year of the centenary of Sri Ramakrishna's birth, a celebration was held at the Sorbonne at which were present anong others, Jean Herbert, Josephine MacLeod, Swami Yatiswarananda, and the renowned French orientalist Professor Paul Masson-Oursel. A call was issued at that meeting for the establishment of a Vedanta work on a permanent basis in France. A year later Swami Siddheswarananda had come to take charge. It was, again, Miss MacLead who recommended the Swami and paid his passage.
A detailed history of the Centre Védantique Ramakrichna has yet to be written. But in brief it is as follows. On arrival Swami Siddheswarananda was given hospitality by a Parisian couple named Mr. and Mrs. Marcel Sauton, and at first he resided in their flat. Classes and interviews were given there. Swami Siddheswarananda, a disciple of Swami Brahmananda, and related to a princely family of Kerala, was a charming man. He learned French rapidly. He was soon able to explain Vedanta philosophy in French in a vivid way. His manner of presentation appealed to the French love for philosophical disputation. Swami Siddheswarananda rapidly became popular.
As a subject of the British Empire he would have been liable to internment once France fell to the Nazi conquest. He retreated south to the region of Toulouse and Montpellier, where he lived out the war years. He spoke in local universities, and devotees from Paris and elsewhere, braving wartime travel restrictions, visited him when they could.
When the war was over Swami Siddheswarananda returned to Paris. It had long been the ambition of Mme. Sauton (Marcel Sauton had died during the war) to establish a domain outside Paris where the Swami could live with a few devotees and receive interested inquirers. Whether Mamaji, as Mrs. Sauton was familiarly called, clearly intended to establish an ashrama is not clear. In any case this is what resulted. By 1948 a big house, locally called he Ch?eau Bois Vignolles, with some subsidiary buildings and some farmland, had been acquired some thirty kilometers to the southeast of Paris, at the edge of the village of Gretz. What became the Centre Védantique Ramakrichna was established there.
As the years passed Swami Siddheswarananda attracted many friends and disciples. I myself spent a few days in Gretz in 1952 and found Swami Siddheswarananda captivatingly charming. He made one feel one was uniquely important to him. A half-dozen young women and an equal number of young men resided at the center, which was conducted as a working estate, Mme. Sauton proving to be an exceptionally effective chatelaine. Two residential buildings were added. Translations of Vedantic classics done by Swami Siddheswarananda and Mr. Sauton were published. There were always a few guests, and on Sunday when the Swami lectured, a large number came from Paris for the day. Vedanta was represented in France effectively.
But this golden age was not to continue. In 1953 Swami Siddheswarananda suffered a heart attack, and by 1957, at the age of 59, he was dead. Now began a difficult period. Two Indian swamis as assistants and possible successors had been sent during Swami Siddheswarananda's lifetime, Swamis Nisreyeshananda and Nityabodhananda. Mrs. Sauton who, as President and French, was the actual director of the center. She had found neither acceptable, and the two swamis soon left. Under the original constitution the representative of Belur Math, the swami nominally in charge (Swami Siddheswarananda) held the status only of an invited foreign guest.
A period of decline set in. The center was devoid of a sannyasin leader, and Belur Math refused to send a replacement until constitutional changes were made, giving the Swami-in-Charge real control over the direction of the center. By 1961 such modifications had been made and Swami Ritajananda was designated as President. Swami Ritajananda took up residence at Gretz in November, 1961. But what a problem to gain acceptance! His French was rudimentary, and having a modest and self-effacing personality, he was slow to make an impression. Swami Ritajananda was not only not French, and not fluent in French, he was also not at all like "our swami", Swami Siddheswarananda. The young men left, Mrs. Sauton and the women chose to live apart in the women's house, far from the "château" where the Swami resided. In 1963 Mrs. Sauton died and the women departed. Swami Ritajananda was undoubtedly in charge, but in charge of what?
During the month I spent with him in the summer of 1964 Swami Ritajananda spoke often and openly of the precariousness of the situation. He had taken two or three new friends into the house to help replace those who had left, but the members of the household were insufficient to make a go of the huge place, money was scarce, and new support was slow in appearing. The Swami wondered openly whether it would be possible to reanimate the work.
I knew thus what I was letting myself in for when on 1 April, 1966, sixteen years to the day of moving in at 1946 Ivar Avenue, I sailed from New York on the "Bremen". All the possessions I had retained were contained in two suitcases and a small trunk. It was the case of the typical immigrant, in reverse direction. Behind me was a farewell reception which Swami Prabhavananda had permitted, to put as good a face as possible before the Hollywood friends on what he seems to have regarded as a betrayal. Chris and Don Bachardy were at the reception. They gave me twenty-five dollars and a card drawn by Don bearing the somewhat Frenchy salut: "Vive Kananda". Just before my actual leaving Swami had turned tender for a moment and said: "Remember, whatever happens, even if it appears harmful, no harm can ever come to you." I was to rely on those words often in the days ahead. I visited all the American centers en route where, to my surprise, I was accepted as a "real" swami and was invited to speak. As the "Bremen" went down the Hudson and headed out to sea I understood what my yankee forefathers had felt when going in the opposite direction — an unknown land, unforeseeable dangers, perhaps hostile natives!
Yes, that was a thought which came to me many times during the first years at Gretz, how painful it is to be an immigrant. Suddenly I knew what it felt like to be one of those awkward Italians or Germans or Poles I'd thought so ill of in the U.S.A. — and the many Spanish, Portuguese, and Moroccan newcomers I was later to encounter in France. I was to appreciate their fortitude, all that they had had to go through, and how well they succeeded in the new setting. Many of them had at the outset not known anyone at all in the adopted land. I at least had a Ramakrishna center to land in, and a friendly Swami Ritajananda to give me shelter.
Rural existence, a life in public, and ignorance of the French language and attitudes — these were the expected hazards. A fourth, immediately to be confronted, was the climate of the Ile de France where Gretz is located. Over the years I have dealt with the first three ordeals fairly well, but have to say that the problem of the often wet and gloomy Gretz weather can still be depressing.
A devotee met me in his car at the Gare du Nord that Sunday afternoon, April 24, 1966, when I arrived to begin my year's trial assignment. As we reached our destination and started down the Boulevard Victor Hugo, there at the village limits was the road sign "Gretz" barely visible in the rainy half light. "This is it," I thought, trying to dominate a rapid pulse.
Swami Ritajananda was unwell and in bed when I arrived, but greeted me kindly. The rest of the household consisted of Jean Weltz and his wife Hélène, Odette, Juliette, Marguerite, Madame Amba, Christa, and Brian. Jean was French, retired, and served as Treasurer. Odette, later Vimala, also French, did the cooking. Juliette, French, was in charge of the daily puja and the laundry. Marguerite, later Maitreyi, born in France, but a naturalized American citizen, did general housework and was in charge of book sales. Amba, French, edited the newly launched "Védanta" quarterly and helped Swami Ritajananda prepare the French texts of his lectures. Christa, German, and a disciple of Swami Yatiswarananda, was in charge of the women's house, the greenhouse, and the vegetable garden. Red-haired Brian was Irish, in the mid-twenties. He was the outdoor man, one might say, the farmer. He looked after the fields and the cows.
And what, precisely, was my role to be? A look around the place showed me at once that it was not to be primarily sacradotal. I would not be sitting in my room reading and preparing sermons, performing rituals in the chapel, or writing articles. Work clothes, not robes, would be my vestments at Gretz, and material more than religious activities my concern. During the decade since Swami Siddheswarananda had died the property had deteriorated. (So had the menbership. It was twenty-three when I arrived.) Buildings were out of repair, interior roads were hardly more than muddy trails, the fields were full of weeds and rutted with gopher holes, the gatehouse a ruin. It was clear that my job was to get in and try to help pull the place together.
There had been an adjustment of the property a few years earlier, arranged by Mme. Sauton. The Center is in a part of Gretz known as Bois Vignolles. This district had always to be approached from the railroad station in a round-about way. A long-term village project had been to construct a footbridge across the railroad tracks and cut a new street from its foot directly into the Bois Vignolles area — a modification which would half the distance to the Centre of those arriving by train. The new street was to cut through one side of the ashrama's property. Part of the rump land across this new thoroughfare was to be given to the village for a new school, and part was to be sold. This whole readjustment was just getting under way as I arrived. A problem posed by the realignment was that the men's residence, the Shivananda Kutir — to be separated from the main part of the property by the new street — eventually to be christened Boulevard Romain Rolland — was on the site sold. A new men's residence would have to be provided.
There stood at the entrance of the property an enormous stone gatehouse called the commons. Built probably at the same time as the "château", in about 1880, this building had served in the old days as a hangar for farm vehicles and tools, as a cow stable, with milk room where butter and cheese were made. There was a tower where pigeons nested and from which squabs could easily be procured for dinner by simply mounting the winding flight of steps to where the nests were and making one's selection from the baby birds. The second floor of the commons held a couple of lofts useful for storing farm products — plus twelve bedrooms for farm and domestic staff. The whole opened on a cobbled courtyard which in turn gave inward to the property and outward to Boulevard Victor Hugo. The building was not wired for electricity, nor provided with water or heating. And the sanitary facilities consisted of a distant outdoor privy hidden from the "château" by a circle of bushes.
This vast building intrigued me. With its several staircases, halls wainscoted a chocolate brown, its rooms festooned with peeling wallpaper from an earlier epoch, its heavy beams, its peculiar odors, it evoked rural France of the nineteenth century. The tile roof was half in ruins, so that rain fell into some of the rooms, birds nested where they wished, nice, rats, and stray animals held sway. The courtyard was an area of thistle and wild blackberry vines. Rejected objects from the main house filled to overflowing those rooms still relatively weathertight.
So my first job at Gretz was to turn the commons into what eventually became the Brahmananda Bhavan. It took two years and most of the money realized from the sale of the Shivananda Kutir and adjoining land. But when we finished we had three suites for families, six rooms for men guests, and ten rooms for future men monastics — what an example of faith! As Brian had left, by that time we didn't have even a single brahmachari. The stable became the workshop of our future dream children, one of the old wagon rooms their "chapter" room, and the pigeon tower eventually was turned into a photographic studio. The whole well lighted, heated, and provided with adequate sanitary facilities. I was eventually to turn one of the oak-beamed lofts into a charming studio for myself, where I have lived joyfully for the past decade and where the documents enabling me to write this book, and the Macintosh word processor on which it has been composed, are housed.
I said that producing the Brahmananda Bhavan was my first job, but that's not strictly true. The supreme priority was to learn French. To know what others are saying and to be able to speak with them was fundamental to everything else. And especially in my case, as I was obliged early on to contact people in the construction world and must soon take my place as Sunday sermon-giver.
Of course two or three in the house, and some of the devotees, spoke English. But I learned with blinding rapidity not to rely on any such crutches. Within a week after my arrival this happened: I was introduced to an influential devotee who I had been told spoke some English. To be pleasant I said a few words to her in English, congratulating her on her knowledge of my tongue. Her reply was swift and sharp, and in French: "That's of no importance. We are French. French is our language and we like to speak it and hear it spoken."
So I dug in. There happened to be attending the Center a woman named Madame Jeanne Sully. Daughter of the classical actor Jean Monet-Sully, whose bust adorns the Comédie Française, Jeanne had herself been a actress-member of that famous organization for many years. She was now in retirement. She accepted the job of making the dumb to speak, and within six months had me giving my first Sunday lectures. She was a perfect teacher. A knower and lover of the classic French poets and playwrights, she spoke not a word of English and couldn't have cared less. Who are the English and the Americans anyway? I studied Madrigal's Magic Key to French during the week and on Saturday spent hours with Jeanne in exhausting and stimulating French conversation. Of course she tried to soften the Anericaness of my accent. I argued: "But everybody has some kind of accent. In France itself there is the accent of the north, of the Midi, a working-class accent, and the manner in which French is spoken in Paris. Everybody has some sort of accent."
"You're wrong there," Jeanne shot back. "I have no accent at all." And technically she was right. The French of the Comédie Française is considered to be the pure French, against which all other speech is measured. So of course the French Jeanne spoke was, as she claimed, accentless.
I can still hear her vociferating: "Articulate! Articulate! Open your mouth!" And it is true. What is important is to be understood. Anyone taking up a new language late in life is bound, the moment he says a word, to reveal his foreign origin. But if what he says is clear and comprehensible, accent doesn't much matter. Some French people even say that they find the American accent pleasing. I don't, but I cannot rid myself of mine. However, thanks to Jeanne, what I say is understood.
Those few words "We are French" was a phrase heard pretty often during my early years at Gretz. What it was really meant to convey was that the French are special, deign of special admiration and have little use for suggestions from outsiders. "We are French" is shorthand for reminding oneself and others of centuries of proud accomplishments: leading military force on the Continent, superb achievements in intellectual and artistic fields, a language that once was spoken by anyone in Europe — including the aristocracy of Russia and Poland — who was anyone. And the Frenchman wishes to feel that the ancient eminence is as strong today as heretofore, although he knows that this is not the case. Charles de Gaulle was President during my debutant period at the C.V.R. The formula he used (I can still hear him rolling the word on his tongue) was the word "gloire". There was, he often reminded his audiences, something singularly glorious about French history, French character, French institutions, and French intentions. These had set France apart from all others and would continue to do so. General de Gaulle never admitted that on the world scene France now occupied a secondary position, and always insisted that as far as "gloire" was concerned, France would forever remain foremost.
As an American and world traveler I judged this attitude ill-informed, naïve, an unreasonable rationalization, although understandable. Twenty-five years ago Frenchmen traveled outside their country much less than now. They did not know or greatly care about others' accomplishments. With the concept of "gloire" as a impregnable Maginot Line of self-congratulation they could feel superior and secure.
But the Yanks were coming again back to Europe, this time not as wartime defenders but as peacetime competitors and new style-setters — along with the Japanese and the Germans. American-Japanese-German technical know-how, for better or for worse, was overturning old concepts. These upstarts had developed "gloire" also, and theirs was modern "gloire". By the 1970's in industry and government this lesson had sunk in; in all domains great modernizations were in progress.
This trend toward internationalization and modernization was paralleled by events at Gretz. My coming to France — an American — as "Manager Maharaj" — was part of the trend. During the time of Swami Siddheswarananda the Centre Védantique Ramakrichna was thought of as a French center dedicated to the French. Relations with Belur Math were kept as distant as possible, and not one of the resident nembers — the novices of the epoch — proposed taking the vows which would make him or her a member of the Ramakrishna Mission, hence a citizen of a broader world.
Yes, concurrently with making myself French I found myself leading the French toward internationalization. Despite protests that no Frenchman would eat food which had not been freshly procured that day — a promenade to the local market to buy provisions being an important daily delight — we introduced a deepfreeze. It proved to be so convenient and, because we could store garden produce for winter, economical, that we quickly added others, until now there are seven, the newest a professional model of 750 kilos. As I write this, I have been informed that besides a week's supply of frozen bread and enough vegetables to see us through the winter, more than one hundred cakes baked in advance are stored. Plus such staples as dhal, cooked rice, and curries. Having a stock of eatables ready at hand reduces the servitude of the cooking department and the anxiety which all hosts feel that there night not be sufficient food on hand for unexpected arrivals.
A professional type washing machine was added to replace the soaking of clothes in laundry tubs and hand washing which was the practice before. And after that a professional-size clothes drier. "But drying clothes in the sun and wind is ever so much more satisfactory," was the objection. "Ah," was the reply, "you mean trying to dry then on days of gloom and wet." A restaurant-style dishwasher found rapid acceptance. Regular grass cutting was instituted, so that the park began to appear well maintained, the shredded grass of the lawns serving as compost to enrich the soil. At the breakfast table plastic honey squeezers, sent by friends from Florida, replaced the bowls where crumby spoons and buttery knives extracting honey left their unpleasant residue.
But this was only superficial internationalization and would have happened in the course of time anyway. My Sunday lectures carried the thread into the realm of thought, often centering not on Hindu theory drawn from old scriptures but near-at-hand examples of Vedanta in practice, clothed in the words of living, breathing people of our tine. I talked about Gurudas Maharaj, Sister Nivedita, Ujjvala and the pioneering work at Shanti Ashrama, Josephine MacLeod, Drinette Verdier, together with the contemporary swamis and their work — men and women like us, from many countries, who had made Vedanta a living force in their lives and furnished believable examples. Some of these examples are treated in Chapter Twelve.
It naturally seemed to Swami Ritajananda and me that what Gretz should be was a Vedanta ashrama serving all Europe, whose location happened to be close to that central point in Europe which is Paris. Internationalization was not easy to put into practice at the beginning. The sound of the German language at our table, spoken by disciples of Swami Yatiswarananda who had come as retreatants, was not greeted graciously by those older Frenchmen who had lived through the Occupation: "We heard enough of that in 1941-45," they grumbled. Quite understandable. But Germans came to the ashrama in increasing numbers and, quite aware of the prevailing attitude, conducted their conversations, even with each other, in English — or French if they knew French. Some Germans even went to the trouble of studying English or French in anticipation of visits to Gretz. Belgians came, and Dutch, and Swiss, and a few from Scandinavian countries. Italians, Spanish, Portuguese. From England, to experience again something of the atmosphere of their former homeland, came many friends of Indian origin. And quantities of American devotees, touring Europe, made it a rule to stop over for a few days at Gretz. During meals one customarily hears conversations in three or four languages; and there are occasions when one can hear a symphony of twice that many different tongues.
I, frankly, am proud of this development. I think this is the way it should be. Here is a small sample of the Europe visualized by men of good will for generations and which is supposed to become a reality in a few years' time. And also an example of Vedanta in practice, a working out of Ramakrishna's statement that his devotees constitute a new caste. Is Gretz not a microcosm thus of the world all mankind yearns for? Is Gretz not a proof of the re-imagination I call upon our brothers to make, as discussed in Chapter Eight?
My American friends have sometimes asked me to tell them what the French are really like. That is a naïve demand, because of course the answer is that once you get to know any people they are found to be basically like everybody else. I find it difficult to distinguish any distinctly French characteristic. People are like a mirror, faithfully giving back to you what you give to then. Kind if I am kind, lovable if I am lovable, helpful if I am helpful. As an alien I have probably been treated better than I deserve. Practically all the friends I have today are people associated with Gretz, and I no longer think of myself as particularly American.
Yet there exists one rather unique national characteristic which I have become aware of. I believe the French are unusually strong in verbal facility. They possess a broad and yet precise, very expressive, vocabulary which can be brought to bear, seemingly by everybody, on large as well as small topics — and brought to bear with gusto and delight. In analyzing a subject, large or minute, the French are pastmasters. The art of discussion — or as it is called, disputation, is highly developed in France and greatly admired. We find writers and speakers becoming idols not so much on the basis of what they say as for the virtuoso fashion in which they handle words — something which I think would not be true of most other peoples. It is obvious that this quality makes the task of any foreigner who is called upon to present his ideas to a French public just that much more challenging.
I think, too, that the idea of change is unattractive to the French. By that I mean, changing oneself. Americans are enthusiastic about self-improvement, the overturning of past habits, personal growth, the remolding of character, new departures. I have not seen this to be an attractive notion to the French. They listen to our sermons on personal transfornation politely enough but rarely seen to feel that the message might apply to those present. Yet this is changing as "New Age" concepts become popular in France.
Perhaps there is one other national characteristic. I hope I shall be forgiven for mentioning it: excessive expression on the part of noses and throats! One has never before heard such an abundance of throat clearing, coughing, and noisy noseblowing as one hears in France. Perhaps the result of the relative absence of sun and the prevalence of damp.
A big nudge to modernization and internationalization came to France in May of 1968, at the time of the student riots, when everything stopped for three weeks, the epoch of the "enragés". Nothing in France has ever been the same since. A general liberalizing was demanded and, as it turned out, granted. I had a glimpse, by chance, into the very crucible of the movement one day in Paris. I happened to be in the Latin Quarter, which I noticed seemed to be untypically hushed. No traffic on the usually crowded Boulevard Saint Michel. Turning a corner, I came upon an eerie sight. Seated in the middle of the pavement in silence, at the intersection of the Boulevard Saint Michel and the Boulevard St. Gernain, were hundreds, thousands perhaps, of young people. And surrounding them, facing them, a black wall of battle ready police, hooded, shields in aggressive posture.
Just at that time I had been scheduled to go to Switzerland for a few days in connection with my researches on Swami Vivekananda in Europe. When I left the trains were running as usual, but soon stopped. All was normal in Switzerland, but what was happening in France? Gasoline short, gas and electricity turned off, no transport, no telephone. I began to worry about the ashrama and felt my place was there facing things with the rest. But how to get back? I happened to notice an announcement that charter busses were being run by Sernam from Basle to Paris. I went to Basle, managed to get a seat, and started. Loading aboard enough gasoline for the trip to Paris as well as for the return journey, the driver crossed the border and began a curiously hesitant advance on empty roads toward the French capital some 500-600 kilometers distant. It was a strange expedition. He'd never driven the route before and constantly solicited road advice from the French passengers on board. Good, I thought, that I may attain Paris, but how in the world shall I manage to get from Paris to Gretz? The miracle is that the highway approaching Paris which had been chosen — surely not the best or most direct — was Route Nationale N° 4, which ran at that time straight through Gretz. I got down from the bus a few hundred metres from the Center and walked into the house while the residents were eating dinner. They had suffered little serious hardship and wondered at my anxiety in feeling that I must at all costs get home.
The Centre Védantique Ramakrichna is classed legally, for reasons I have already explained, as a foreign association. Its President is Indian. The "Manager-Maharaj" is American. Half the permanent residents are non-French, as are a large proportion of the retreatants. It is understood at the Gretz railroad station that any arrival who cannot speak French is probably heading for the Centre Védantique, as surely is any woman clad in a sari!
I doubt if even five per cent of the citizens of Gretz have any idea what our organization stands for, or have even entered the gate, except as workmen or deliverymen. We once heard a local resident, whose car had broken down outside our entry and was using our telephone to call for aid, describe his automobile as stranded just in front of "the Hindu Club". One is reminded of the blindness in Jayrambati as to the identity of Sri Sarada Devi. "Directly below a lighted lantern there is a spot of darkness."
This doesn't make things easier for us. Yet I doubt if we have suffered much. We are known as quiet people, prompt payers of bills, and we keep up the property well.
Of course we find it frustrating, when it comes to getting something done officially, to be merely foreign guests, holding residence permits which theoretically could be revoked. To seek recourse against a neighborhood or boundary problem, to obtain permits or zoning changes, must be done with a minimum of insistence and a maximum of tact. Yes, our Active Members are largely French citizens, but our primary allegiance, as theirs, lies beyond purely French concerns. Our essential interests are not even of this world. We really shouldn't be located in any national entity at all; but in the present world such is not possible. Our situation is difficult for the local population to grasp. It recalls my condition of having been in, but not of, Mason, Michigan, decades before. We have insisted to the Mayor that the municipality should be proud to be the home of an organization known internationally, and privately reasoned that nobody in the world at large would ever have heard the word Gretz if it hadn't been that the Centre Védantique Ramakrishna was located there.
I have often asked myself why people come to our ashrama. What makes it a going concern? It costs them effort and expense to get there, and if they eat Sunday lunch with us or stay the week-end or a few days, although our rates are low, a certain contribution will need to be made. In addition, they are expected to help with the work if they can. And keep up their own room, and when they leave render it clean and prepared for the subsequent guest. There are no distractions in or near the village of Gretz, except country pleasures. The ashrama is near a national forest where one can walk, and on sunny summer days just to sit in the park or go out with a basket to collect fruit or wild blackberries can be a special joy. If one is not interested in the chapel or the library or rural pleasures, a sojourn at Gretz can be mightily unexciting.
Some people come to Gretz because they are interested in Indian philosophy. They wish to know, in an academic fashion, more about the Vedas, the Upanishads, the writings of Shankara, the Bhagavad-Gita. The Center's library and the wisdon of Swami Ritajananda and Swami Veetamohananda are at their disposal.
Some are attracted by Sri Ramakrishna. The Face of Silence by Dhan Gopal Mukerjee is a popular book, and Romain Rolland's studies of Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda have been in print for the past sixty years. Since the 1940's Jean Herbert's translations of the words of Sri Ramakrishna and some of Vivekananda's works have been available, and there are a number of other books and articles popularizing Ramakrishna Vedanta. A fantastic event happened in 1971 when the then popular magazine "Planete" published a whole issue on Sri Ramakrishna and organized a Ramakrishna festival at the Salle Pleyel in Paris, attended by a capacity audience. We still receive letters from people saying that they had read about Gretz in "Planete" and would like to know more or would like to come and see what we do. Recently a similar response followed the publication of an article on the ashrama in the Dutch magazine "Prana". .Although there has never been any organized campaign to popularize his name and personality, Sri Ramakrishna has become surprisingly well known in France and in Europe generally — even in the counties of the east.
Some, especially those who live in population-concentrated Paris, make the forty-minute trip to the ashrama primarily in search of space and fresh air.
Many come to profit from Gretz's "atmosphere". It is certainly true that a place where high thoughts have been thought and the Lord's name chanted for years and years develops a special ambiance that calms and heals. One feels it when one enters the gate, and it is strongest in the chapel — a little like that magnetic center pictured in the film "2001: A Space Odyssey". Many come just to sit a while in the chapel and feel better. Or talk with the swamis, whose calm and positiveness seem to make one's problems recede.
Then of course the Centre Védantique profits from the present popularity of yoga and the surge of enthusiasm for eastern thought. The Krishna Consciousness movement, the teachers of Transcendental Meditation, the writings of Alan Watts, the teachings of Krishnamurti, and the discourses of countless promenading paramahamsas, rishis, matajis, lamas, bonzes, and Zen masters have convinced large numbers that physical well-being and psychological equilibrium can be obtained through the practice of oriental techniques. Those human needs which once motivated people to attend mass and confession, to go on hazardous pilgrimages, now make many search answers in sessions of satsang, zazen, religious dance, and the performance of yoga postures, and other "New Age" activities. Or — and here we can be of some help — learn to meditate.
Desire to escape maya's plagues sends people to Gretz. Some of them decide, after a longer or shorter exposure to the ashrama, that Gretz is not for them, and they search alternatives elsewhere. I was astonished to learn recently that a newly launched organization in France, founded on the thought of Swami Muktananda, who had rarely, before his death in1983, ever visited Europe, has thirty branches. The Krishna Consciousness movement, begun only thirty years ago, has vast estates scattered throughout Europe, and formerly had a thriving restaurant in the Halles district of Paris. Despite widespread criticism concerning its methods, this organization attracts thousands to its manifestations. Many additional examples could be listed. Whereas the Ramakrishna movement, working for fifty years in France, remains hardly larger than it was in Swami Siddheswarananda's day.
What is the reason? Dozens of hours preparing my Sunday afternoon lecture. As I dress in the traditional gerua of the Indian sannyasin, preparatory to going to the auditorium, I look out the window, to see perhaps a half dozen autos in the drive, and when I arrive to give the lecture I am gratified to find an audience of seventy to ninety. It is roughly the same for all the Vedanta centers in the West. All may be said to be in a healthy condition; all have grown modestly over the years, but not one is what could be called broadly popular. Swami Ritajananda and I have discussed this situation many times. We feel sometimes that Swami Yatiswarananda's labors in Europe before the War, Swami Siddheswarananda's twenty years of hard work, and now ours since the 1960's, seem to have been less popular than they should have been. Have we all failed in some way? If so, why and how?
Our analysis may be only a rationalization, but here it is. Sri Ramakrishna once said, "If you want discussion, go to Keshab. If you want God, come to me." Remaining true, a hundred years after the death of the founder, to the founder's insistence, the Ramakrishna movement in the West offers nothing but spiritual religion. Our emphasis is on change of character. We do not teach physical fitness or promise to open the path of success in business or romance; indeed this-worldly concerns are treated almost disdainfully. We organize no courses which, upon completion, insure superiority in some religious subject or confer competence to instruct others. Our leaders do not pretend to be repositories of secret truths; they do not try to appear charismatic. We don't organize, we don't promote, we don't convert, we seek no publicity. We discourage sectarianisn, nip fanaticism in the bud. We often quote Swami Vivekananda's remark that it's good to be born in a church but undesirable to die there. Our one objective, as my guru expressed it, is to encourage those who come to us to become men and women of God. And we tend to let this transpire naturally, agreeing that nothing happens but at the right time.
Since we teach that all truth is in the individual and that he must find his own hell or heaven within himself, we do not attribute to ourselves any hold over the souls that come to us. Each is given the freedom to progress as he wishes. The Order does not allow gurus to emerge who nay attract bands of blindly faithful, fanatical followers. The adherence of the devotee is stated to be not to an individual leader, not to the authority of the organization, but to the ideal.
This being our position, is it surprising that Ramakrishna Vedanta has not become a popular movement? Our manner of operating is too meditation-oriented to appeal to any but a spiritual minority. Considering our point of view, one has to conclude that it's amazing that as many people come to Gretz and remain faithful as do. At least this is how Swami Ritajananda and I console ourselves! Yes, as I said, some leave us. In that we offer little more than a moderately well heated hothouse where individuals can flourish only by putting forth some effort, this is not surprising.
I never felt that I was called to preach, nor do I feel that I am a very charismatic lecturer. Gone are those skills displayed as a drama student in high school and college. The Sunday when it is my turn to give the 15.00 sermon is a miserable day for me, and the several days preceding it, during which I prepare the talk, make for an anxious week.
Something happened to me in 1948 which I have never forgotten. Trying to find what to do with myself when I first made the shift to Los Angeles, I went one day to a Christian minister for counseling. He was a prominent pastor of a big church on Wilshire Boulevard — which on arriving I observed possessed a gymnasium and sports center twice as large as its sanctuary. I put my problem very earnestly to him. But before I knew what was happening Reverend X turned the tables and was pouring out his problem to me! He said in distressed confession that he had come to feel unsure that he had chosen the correct vocation; his faith had wavered. Yet he went on carrying on his ministerial activities with a great deal of assumed enthusiasm because he felt that he had to do so. But the conflict was heading him toward certain breakdown. What was he to do?
I excused myself and left, horribly embarrassed; nor have I forgotten that agonized man. I understand now, and admire his integrity. It is not a simple thing to be a religious teacher. Again and again Sri Ramakrishna warned against preaching unless one has a commission from God. This man was sincere enough to have discovered his lack and become upset by it. But he was imprisoned where he was, since his livelihood depended on keeping up the effort.
In my own case, although I have to give sermons frequently, I have always done so in terms of relaying what the scriptures, avatars, and saints have said, and contemporary devotees who have "succeeded". Never speaking as an authority. I am with the congregation as co-learner, co-inquirer. This is the only approach I know of for a man to take who is aware that he lacks a "commission" but is required to speak on religious topics before others. I have always eschewed any guru-like activities and even hesitate, when asked, to give advice on ordinary everyday matters of practical concern.
It is observable that life in an ashrama is ever so much like the structure of a play, requiring a cast of characters which, with minor variations, are duplicated from center to center. All the stereotype components of drama are present — the hero or sage, perhaps a heroine or lady bountiful, a comedian for comic relief, a captain of the guard and a few sturdy soldiers, and a villain to muddy the waters or thicken the plot, hence make the action move.
When one of our members complains about his role, I reply: "Be careful. Be thankful you are allowed to play the character you do play; be satisfied to play it well and try to play it even better, or the Lord may assign you another part, less attractive." And when one of our group criticizes another: "He is horrible; he is a troublemaker; he is bad," it is my habit to caution: "Watch out; all roles are required here, and if you concentrate too much on the seemingly undesirable actions of him you perceive as the villain, you may find yourself required to exchange places with him."
I know. From juvenile lead in 1950, I was recast later for a while in the Hollywood drama as villain. Now I am satisfied to play, unglamorous as is the role, the sturdy soldier, or at best, a captain of the guard. Expand. Role of Swami as Shaman, Victim and comedian.
Brian left in less than a year after I first arrived at Gretz. For a while we had no young men residents at all. The student manifestations of May, 1968, coincided with the fact that we had not yet planted the vegetable garden and could barely take care of the one cow we had at that time. I personally ran the motorized plow in an effort to turn the soil of at least a part of the vegetable garden so as to get something sewn before the planting season was over. I wondered very seriously whether we should consider disposing of our big property and move to some other site more simple to manage. At this time, struggling with a depressing situation, I questioned what Ramakrishna really had in mind for the Centre Védantique Ramakrichna, and I asked him with all my heart to show us what his wishes were.
It must have been in late May or early June that Veno came. He was a blond young Hollander aged nineteen. He just walked in unannounced and said that he had come to stay.
"But we don't know you," I remonstrated.
"Doesn't matter," he replied.
"And if we say that you can't stay here?"
"Doesn't matter," Veno replied again. "I have my sleeping bag and shall camp in the field."
We concluded that this was the answer from Ramakrishna we had asked for. Apparently he had sent this energetic young person just at this time when he was so badly needed. Veno not only quickly took over the care of the stable and the planting of the vegetable garden; he also contacted several friends in Holland, and soon we had an interesting band of young residents at Gretz, and the life of the ashrama as it is known today was established. Veno and friends started the musical program, and the album of ashrama songs which we published with the help of a devotee was the result of Veno's enthusiasm. It is Veno who composed the bhajan we sing every morning, "Hari Om, Ramakrishna". Although Veno went back to Holland after several years and established himself there as a householder, he never lost his love for the Center, and the Center never lost its appreciation for him. He told me the last time I saw him, "Whatever bad things I may do in this life, I know that Ramakrishna will be compassionate toward me, as the author of the bhajan in his name sung by the devotees every morning at Gretz."
But Veno was not a farmer any more than was anyone else. Our prairies were in deplorable condition, and the big field, capable of producing all the hay we needed, had remained uncultivated for years. So Ramakrishna expressed his support in a second event. In the autumn of that same year a very bedraggled young woman appeared at the door and said she wanted to stay in the ashrama. She seemed a hippy type, not very clean, and we were not at all inclined to accept her. But we permitted her to move in on a trial basis. We knew she was American, but otherwise she seemed disinclined to reveal anything about her background. Eventually, however, there were telephone calls from the United States, and shortly afterwards her father appeared. His purpose in coming to Gretz was to visit his daughter, but he quickly interested himself in our farming problems. He turned out to be a prominent agriculturist from Virginia. It was he who showed us the successful farm techniques which we have used every since, including what is called "stabulation libre" which provides us with compost; and the concept of cropping short the fields after the cows have eaten the grass, thereby enriching the prairies and reducing the reseeding of weeds. Not only showed us, but presented us with the farm equipment needed to do it, which we are using to this day — the John Deere tractor and accompanying machines.
As for myself, I see the protective hand of Ramakrishna in these developments. We had a problem about which we could do nothing. Yet somehow or other an unknown young man was inspired to come to us fron another country, and an unknown and at first unwelcome young woman also, both instrumental in saving an actual situation and pointing the way to the future. I see the intervention of Sri Ramakrishna in the solutions he provided; he promised to look after his devotees, and these were examples of how he fulfilled his promise. It is apparent that he does his own work; we do nothing beyond profiting from his concern, as his beneficiaries.
Of the half-dozen members of the household who were here when I arrived in 1966, one has left, four have died, and the others have grown older. Three of the original women members continue to serve as "dedicated workers", and a fourth has joined in recent years. They are responsible for the cooking, for the chapel, for housework in the château and Sarada Mandir, for the laundry, for cultivation and care of flowers, and for personal service to Swami Ritajananda.
In addition there are generally four to five young men in the ashram. They live as novices, giving their time and labor to the Center, in turn being sheltered and fostered there. They do most of the driving, property upkeep, chores relating to the farm and the vegetable garden, housekeeping in the Brahmananda Bhavan, some office work, and they help with food preparation and dishwashing.
In the case of these young men, they are given an opportunity to develop their character, and if they will, apply in due course to become members of the Ramakrishna Order. Four have taken brahmacharya at Belur Math, and of these, two have become swamis. We do not involve these young men in humanitarian activities — in the administration of schools, orphanages, hostels, medical services, or disaster relief activities, as is the case in India. We say that making the ashrama a well-ordered and attractive place where paying guests like to come for solace — that is their form of service; and doing that is their manner of earning their way and gaining a chance to develop their potential.
It is a routine life, monotonous, perhaps ill rewarded. They are constantly subjected to the interruptions and demands posed by guests. Yet if one remembers that "to serve My devotees is to serve Me", being a novice at Gretz can be a worthwhile experience.
But many do leave, and when that happens, I count it a personal loss. Oh, not always. Some don't stay long, some prove themselves ill-adapted to our ways, or come only as would-be escapists. But a novice who has stayed several years — his going is a traumatic experience for us. Usually it is marriage and a normal life in the world which attracts them. Surely there is nothing wrong in that.
My dream was that we should build up a stable group of young men who would not only take responsibility for different phases of the work but would, as time passed, progress steadily to brahmacharya and sannyas, and take over as responsible associates personnel in the future.
But that is not at all what has happened. So I have had to conclude that Ramakrishna's will is otherwise. As "Manager-Maharaj" I have had to get along with constantly changing ashrama personnel, compensated for to some extent by the the very considerable aid rendered regularly by lay devotees. Some of these week-end helpers have become invaluable in carrying forward certain parts of the work. Indeed a band of regular weekend aides carry out many duties which one would normally suppose would be the responsibility of these living in the house on a permanent basis. Our paucity of permanent live-in members has given such devotees opportunities for close identification with the Center which they could not have enjoyed otherwise.
Thus I have had to change my ideas as to what should be our mode of operation. I have had to conclude that Gretz, at least for the present, is destined to function as a sort of character-forming institute in which young persons enroll for longer or shorter periods, in order to be grounded in spiritual life, and from which they may depart equipped with some spiritual preparation. The equivalent, one might say, of the tradition in certain far-eastern countries where every young citizen dons the robe and carries the begging bowl of a Buddhist monk for a few months during the early period of his life.
And it is true that the foundation Gretz gives them serves well our "graduates". Those who have lived with us have not only gained a spiritual base for their life; they have also become witnesses for Vedanta to a population ignorant of spiritual subjects, as they pursue their lives as householders and in business. They have perhaps a larger influence as lay people than have the novices who follow their round of activities exclusively at the ashrama. They are convincing interpreters of the meaning of Sri Ramakrishna. One of our "old boys" went on to a brilliant career in a university, where he originated a new system of psychology based on Vedantic principles. Another is an international businessman, who has frequent occasions to demonstrate before other professional persons the therapeutic value of meditation. A third is a marionettist, whose puppets communicate to the children in his audiences themes taken from Indian wisdom.
My regret over the departure of some of these young men has been compensated for by the satisfaction I feel in knowing that they have done so well since their departure from the Centre. Here are extracts from letters I received from two of then:
Please excuse me for being a month late in replying to you, but be sure that I am very happy to know you are going to visit me. Now it is not me, but us, for I have married a girl named X. She already knows you, since I have spoken often about the months passed at Gretz — which remain for me the moments the most fruitful of ny life.
A great thankfulness pours from my heart, for you awoke in me something fundamental — making me conscious of the real life, and the discovery of the Lord, who would change our lives. In addition, you were a great comfort during those moments when I had to go through difficult situations; I shall never forget Gretz.
May this encourage you to continue your mission for those young people who pass some time at Gretz. My prayer to the Lord is that he will keep you in good health and keep you safe in his arms.
My wife and I are now taking an active interest in the Catholic church, where we are trying to consecrate our lives to Jesus Christ. I always refused to think of the Centre Védantique as a sect, but instead as a place where I discovered the faith.
The real reason why I write you is this: I should like to express the appreciation I have for you and the Center. I left the Center about four years ago and there hasn't been a single moment when my faith in Ramakrishna has weakened. I have seen that the struggles in the world are present in order to bring us closer to the Lord and to you. My life at Gretz and the contact with you brought me a treasure of great value, a source of peace, a direction, a way, an objective, a comfort, and happiness — in Ramakrishna.
Hence I should like to tell you, a bit in the name of all those who came to Gretz and who gained from your presence and who left the Center, that your work and your pains and the difficulties we made for you have brought us the greatest benediction, the sentiment of belonging to Ramakrishna.
I ask you, thus, to have confidence in us — in A., B., C., D., E., F., and so forth — that we will live a life worthy of the grace you have extended in helping us to be good children of Sri Ramakrishna.
My thanks to you.
I make a practice of keeping in touch with these "old boys". I have visited several of them in their homes, meeting their wives, dangling their children on my knee. A little sad for what they might have become, but nonetheless very proud of them, every one.
There is a certain subject which I have not mentioned anywhere previously in this book because I never wanted to give it much importance. But yet it cannot be ignored. Being a Vedantist in the West, and a swami, involves certain disadvantages. I have been subjected to discrimination because of such Indian connections, and in one case ostracism.
To a mild degree criticism from my own Protestant, Yankee family; that is to be expected. But also on the part of ordinary, reasonable folk with whom I have contacts, whose good opinion, whose co-operation, may be considered important. The questionable activities in the Occident of some religious leaders of oriental background who direct groups easily mistaken as being like ours, and the outcry everywhere against "the sects", have made difficulties for me. I have already spoken of the equivocal attitude of the citizens of our village. When I travel my unaccustomed name confounds reservation agents and hotel clerks.
"What is your name?"
"Just say Mr. Swami."
"All right, Mr. Swami. And what is the first name?"
A well-known scandal surrounding a swami in Switzerland caused a devotee who lives in Zurich to avoid introducing me to her friends when I visited her there. And the ugly publicity concerning the behavior of an Indian leader operating in America was the probable reason why several influential citizens of Saas-Fee, who had originally been enthusiastic to know of Swami Vivekananda's visit to their village in 1896 suddenly refused further friendship. Apparently they feared I intended to despoil the purity of their Swiss respectability by trying to turn Saas-Fee into a pilgrim center for fanatical Swamiji followers, perhaps even intending to rename it Vivekanandapuram!
In addition, one of the occupational hazards of being a "holy man" is that one's status invites scandal. Swami Prabhavananda often remarked: "It is strange, but if someone endeavors to live a pure life, others like to attack him. This happens in all churches and religious associations." The source seems often to be a woman of what the French call "a certain age," usually endowed with a sufficiency of money and an insufficiency of emotional fulfillment in her life. Prabhavananda went on to say: "It follows practically the same pattern everywhere. Either the sadhu is accused of being not right as concerns women, or if not that, then as concerns men, or if not that, then as concerns money."
It never occurred to me that suspicions of this ugly sort should ever be leveled at me. But at times I have received anonymous letters, or overheard gossip, accusing me of illicit relations with one or the other of the sexes, and at times both! As far as I know, I haven't yet been accused of looseness in money matters.
This sort of defamation of character is difficult to accept and next to impossible to counteract; and it really hurts. And yet, I said to myself, how many doubts I have entertained about others, including some sadhus, probably as wrongly as those which were being circulated about me. If I so gloried in impinging the character of others — probably absolutely mistakenly — why should I feel so pained when others should do the same to me?
What, then, have my years at the Centre Védantique Ramakrichna meant to me?
It was my good fortune that this opportunity was permitted me. I sometimes console myself with the thought that my determination to quit Los Angeles — agonizing as that was — was "meant to be" since it forced me to transfer to Gretz, to take up a new role in a new country under new leadership, where new learning experiences were to become available. A stage which began with sadness and qualms but grew satisfactory. And I am told that my presence at Gretz has been a plus factor for the ashrama.
I had always felt myself more old-world than new. That is to say, more of a reserved English type than a brash American. Certainly, however, never French. It was another of Ramakrishna's pranks to send me not to Britain, where I could have settled in easily, but to France whose language I couldn't speak and whose culture — so un-British, so un-American — I would have to learn to adapt to.
But how gratifying it all proved to be!
Slowly, steadily getting the Center's property in order has been a gratifying occupation. The domain will never merit entry in guidebooks as an outstanding example of French architecture or landscaping, but the houses have become harmonious and functional, and the park beautiful in a natural sort of way. The financial condition too has become adequate to our needs.
And, to my astonishment, I have become an enthusiastic farmer. The birth of a new calf is an exciting event. Our annual harvest of 250 kilos of honey and twelve thousand eggs per year are matters of importance. The making and distribution of compost holds interest for me. A wet summer interfering with the orderly production of hay is a matter of concern, while a dry spell affecting the great vegetable garden and the orchard makes me anxious. I take pride in large pumpkins. And when in winter we eat our own strawberries or raspberries earlier picked and frozen, and our devotees exclaim: "How good they are, not like you buy, but so natural," my heart warms. I watch the seasons from the first appearance of crocuses to the falling of the last leaves from our dozens of trees and ponder during all the days of leaf-raking on the rhythm of nature — like any other country person. Yes, even too hot a sun, too glaring a light, displeases me now. Lower skies, a light drizzle as seen in some Japanese prints, manifest for me their own sort of beauty.
Swami Vivekananda's motto for us, "For one's own good and for the good of the world" has been my inspiration. "For the good of the world" for us means placing the message of Vedanta at the disposal of all who would like to learn of it. We have done our best with that aspect. Our membership has risen from 23 in 1966 to more than 250 today. Our bookshop has expanded. Our French quarterly "Védanta" has come out regularly for the past twenty-five years. We have translated a good deal of recent Vedanta literature and published several books. And I have taken my turn as frequently as demanded in "exposing", as the French say, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda ideas in writing and in lectures. Individual spiritual instruction, needless to say, I have always left to Swami Ritajananda. A gratifying project was investigating and writing up the activities of Swami Vivekananda in Europe, as I have elsewhere explained.
As for "one's own good", I have been forced to live the life of a sadhu at Gretz. Being a swami implies a real responsibility: it makes one highly visible. Being a swami means first and foremost curbing one's self-assurance — so apt to mislead — and placing one's reliance upon God. This has meant reining in my preemptory nature, marking time on certain projects sometimes for years, until permission to start comes from itself, learning to "let things work out", learning to rely on Sri Ramakrishna.
It has meant, too, letting God take responsibility for the problem which has always plagued us at Gretz, of an insufficiency of household members. To keep such a big place going and essential services uninterrupted on the basis of unskilled and volunteer help is not easy. As I explained earlier in this chapter, we can count only on helpers who appear of their own accord and stay because it pleases them to stay. And only too often no sooner does a novice learn a job and begin to ease our burden than he decides to leave, and the whole responsibility has to be taken up and retaught once again. If I can say that I have suffered, I shall say that I have suffered because of this. But I have learned to live with this hazard. Accepting this form of disorder at Gretz has been my principle austerity and one I suppose I needed to practice. Some probationers and several devotees have been difficult to manage, and I have suffered at their hands. But I have to say that somehow or other when one aide leaves another comes, and we have never experienced the serious crises which I periodically feared.
It is so curious that anyone seeking order and privacy, as I constitutionally always have, should be thrust into a career in which order is always escaping and a hearty extraversiveness is mandatory. Ordering my life like this, I accept, is another of Ramakrishna's games.
I try never to forget that a sadhu is perforce a model whether he chooses to be or not. The only moral education I believe in is teaching through example. So I have forced myself to go to the chapel regularly no matter how I felt, day in and day out, year after year, to use my time profitably, to remain cheerful, to put a positive face on things, and to give an example of willing service to guests and devotees. I have fought a battle with my willful temperament so as to operate with patience, and against my aggressive personality, to learn to be malleable. I have tried to appropriate the qualities discerned in the gurus and upagurus I have been fortunate to know — descriptions of whom form Chapter Twelve and conclude this book.
Any American tends to think of Europe as a potentially dangerous area of the world, subject to repeated war and destruction. In contrast, America has traditionally been regarded as a haven of safety, although in today's world of intercontinental arms the distinction may no longer be valid. I have often asked myself whether, if war were to seriously threaten Europe, I would abandon Gretz and betake myself if I could to the sanctuary of the land where I was born and whose citizen I still am. And to this I say no. The devotees of Gretz are my relatives, fellow members of the Ramakrishna caste, and Gretz is my post. If big trouble were to come, I am sure I should prefer to stay and face the consequences with my own.
For we are not here just for the present. The Centre Védantique Ramakrichna will be here long after I am gone, and "my boys" will be here too — at least some of them — occupying the posts, carrying the responsibilities, that are mine now. I have no children of my own, no domain of my own. But like a fond paterfamilias, or founder of a dynasty, I gain joy from what I've helped to foster: these descendants, this domain, and all that goes to make up the good life of an ashrama. Successors to Swami Ritajananda will come from India as President and take over. New "manager-maharajs" may come from America or better yet will originate in different countries of Europe, reared up in Gretz. It is enough to know that people sensing in their hearts a passion to become men and women of God will find waiting for them at Gretz a setting and the procedures conducive to their search.