The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as everyone knows. And the proof of devotion is that devotion makes a difference in peoples' lives, that — as Swami Ritajananda said, people do improve, and that — as Swami Prabhavananda affirmed: "It works my child. I tell you that it really does work."
Witnessing this type of success is convincing. It reassures us that our aspiration has not been misplaced.
Throughout the previous eleven chapters, I have mentioned, according to the context of the subject, individuals who have impressed me as examples of Vedanta in practice. There remain several additional devotees whose stories I wish to recount, whose histories provide evidences of the effectiveness of the faith. A pleasantly varied lot of devotees they are, consisting of a society woman, a professor, two stenographers, an inventor, a researcher, an architect, a countess, and two swamis.
Her name was Mme. Alice Nixon. She was the mother of one of the nuns in our convent at Santa Barbara. Nixon is a name fairly common in the United States. Mme Alice Nixon, about whom I shall now discourse, was not related in any way to the former President of the United States, Richard Nixon. Later, when she became a devotee Swami Prabhavananda gave her the name of Tarini — one of the names of the Divine Mother. Tarini was born rather poor, in Tennessee. In other words, she came from what is generally referred to as an undistinguished background. But as a young woman she possessed remarkable beauty and a very sharp mind. She had wit and charm. Tarini is an encouraging example of someone who had decided all by herself to expand her horizons. And she did just that, relying on nothing but her intelligence, audaciousness, and most of all, courage.
Here is an example of Tarini's courage — or if you prefer — audaciousness. During the latter part of her life she was interested in gardening. One day she went with friends to visit the famous Biltmore Gardens near Asheville, North Carolina. She happened to arrive on a day when the gardens were closed; naturally the guardian refused to let her enter. Tarini had cultivated a royal manner; drawing herself up with an imperious air, she whipped out her calling card and in a commanding tone declared: "Mr. Nixon will not be pleased with your refusal." This was at the time when Richard Nixon was Vice President. Naturally the guardian, not daring to take the risk of upsetting a relative of the Vice President, opened the gate. Tarini and her friends were able to visit the gardens in agreeable privacy.
She obtained quite often tickets to popular plays for which all the places had long been reserved by appearing at the ticket office well dressed and haughty just before the curtain was to go up, insisting that a ticket had been set aside for her by some personage whose name unnerved the clerk in the ticket office.
Before I came to know her in Los Angeles in about 1950, Tarini had passed many years in Europe. Before that, back in Tennessee, there had been a marriage to a prosaic local type, and she had had two daughters. Fed up with life in her dull American environment, and fearing that her daughters would have little in the way of advantages, Tarini decided quite early to leave her husband and take her daughters to Europe. There she lived, literally, on her wits and her beauty. She was welcome everywhere because she was so interesting — or to use a word often applied in describing her — outrageous. She was decorative, she was fun, and her presence made parties successful. The daughters went to good schools and obtained a sophisticated veneer; they almost forgot English and that they were Americans.
Tarini told me one day how it had all begun to come to an end. One winter she was at St. Moritz for the skiing. The young man who was her companion quite innocently and admiringly observed: "Mon dieu, you must have been a beautiful woman."
"His use of the past tense," Tarini told me, "gave me a shock. I realized in a flash that the life I had lived was now over and that I should turn to concerns of more importance."
Tarini came back to the United States and began to study Vedanta, first out of curiosity and later with a real hunger. At the Vedanta Society of Southern California she was a familiar figure at all the functions, smartly dressed in her now démodé robes from once famous French designers, every inch the great matron, and speaking always French to anyone who knew the language even slightly. Her motto was: "I prefer that others should say, 'There she goes' rather than 'Who is she?'" She also used to quote Lady Mendl: "Never complain, never explain."
At the end of his class talks on Thursday evenings Swami Prabhavananda generally asked for questions from the congregation. If there was an ackward silence with no one daring to speak up, Tarini would get things started by asking the first question — often a question which seemed to the audience that didn't know her irreverent or provocative. Yes, she stirred up things! At once an air of excitement was produced and the question period would turn out to be very interesting indeed.
She had studied somewhere, perhaps in Japan, the gentle art of flower arranging. Hence it was Tarini's privilege to prepare the decorations for any special occasion at the Center. These arrangements were spectacular, in fact as audacious as she was — so much so that it was sometimes said that the flower arrangements were so overwhelming at dinners that there was hardly room for the guests, let alone for the food!
I give all these worldly details in order to prepare for the dénouement of this story, of how a woman so apparently frivolous and egoist should become a solid devotee and inspire in me the faith that God knows the heart and responds to the inner condition rather than to outward appearances.
For now Tarini fell sick with cancer. She didn't mention it for a long time, going on in her animated way as always. One evening she accompanied me to a concert at the famous Hollywood Bowl. She was smartly dressed as usual, and wore high-heeled shoes. The Hollywood Bowl is about a kilometer's distance from the Vedanta center, and once there in that huge outdoor stadium one is obliged to climb a good many steps to reach one's seat. We walked both ways, Tarini chatting gaily all the time. It was only later that I realized what an effort that evening must have cost her.
Instead of saying anything about her malady and her imminent demise, Tarini took up the study of the then new subject of gerontology — the science of age and aging. She began to discuss with her usual animation with other devotees the phenomena of aging, terminal illness, and death. These exposés, rendered like pleasant conversation, were Tarini's means for letting her friends know that she was approaching her end.
And I suspect that it was also through this method that Tarini herself came to terms with the idea of her death. It was light, it was charming, it was decorative. But when it eventually became apparent that she was suffering from something grave, she began to speak openly of her condition. With the same audacity with which she had conducted her worldly life, she began to attach herself firmly to the Divine. She attacked meditation and japam in the same fashion that she had attacked the difficulties of life — with faith and determination. I suspect that God found her as amusing as everyone else always had. I suspect that her very audaciousness, her outrageousness, appealed to the Divine and forced him, as was the case at the Biltmore Gardens long before, to throw wide open the gate.
I went to see her several days before her death. Of course physically Tarini was but a broken shadow of her former self. But she was as animated as always, conversing about the destination that was awaiting her only a few days away as though she were preparing for a trip to visit amusing society people in Venice or Rome.
Tarini died at the Sarada Convent at Santa Barbara, surrounded by the nuns, the most affected being her daughter who had always felt slightly embarrassed by her mother's exaggerated nature, but now grateful for it. The nuns chanted throughout her last hours the names of Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi. Tarini joined in as long as she could.
Certain persons who knew the old Tarini remarked: "If Tarini can succeed, by golly, then there is hope for me!" I believe that that would have been an obituary of which she would have heartily approved.
The time is Christmas Eve, 1963. The place is the great temple of Sri Ramakrishna at Belur Math on the Ganges. In a few days the final and most important celebrations marking the centenary of the birth of Swami Vivekananda are to take place. Swamis, brahmacharis, and devotees have traveled to the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission from all parts of India. From other places in the Far East, from Europe, and from America additional visitors have come. On the evening of which I write, many of these people are assembled in the temple for the annual worship of the Lord Jesus Christ.
A temporary altar has been set up in the nave of the temple at right angles to the shrineroom. All afternoon the brahmacharis of the Belur Math Training Center, assisted by students from nearby Ramakrishna schools, have been busy decorating this altar. Many kinds of food, especially dishes assumed to be popular in the Christian West, have been set out as offerings: fruit cake, Coca Cola, and a cigar. In the center of the altar stands a beautiful colored picture of the Madonna and Child.
My eyes are drawn to this picture. For I have heard the story of where it came from and why it is here. "The picture of Christ they were using at Belur Math was small and not very well printed. I decided that, while passing through Europe on the way home, I would purchase the finest print I could obtain, of a good painting of the Madonna and Child; and I would send it to Belur Math for their Christmas worship." This is what Dorothy Mercer had told me in Hollywood after her return from India in 1959.
Now I am at Belur Math, and there before me is Dorothy's gift on the Christmas shrine. And Dorothy is dead. She never saw, will never see, in its place of honor, the present she gave. Dorothy loved India. Her trip to India in 1958-59 wrought a great change in her. Dorothy Mercer had always been a Vedantist in name but India turned Dorothy into a real devotee.
Who was Dorothy Mercer? I shall try to describe, for those who did not know her, something of Dorothy's life and personality. And those who were her friends, in India and the West, will perhaps be pleased, by reading these words, to think of her once again.
I write about Dorothy also because in her story evidence may be found that our faith is well founded. I write about Dorothy because she stands for something important. The example she provided offers proof that what the scriptures tell us, what the teachers say, is true. Religion does work! Religion worked for Dorothy. The last years of her life were marked by a growing sweetness of character. The final stage, so tragic, was made bearable by Dorothy's faith. And her death can only be called wonderful, as the death of a real devotee must be.
Dorothy Mercer was one of the contributors to What Vedanta Means to Me. In her story Dorothy tells how she had been associated with Vedanta from her very birth at San Francisco in 1901. "I was born into the Vedanta," she said. Dorothy's family attended the Vedanta Society of Northern California. The Swami in charge from 1903 to 1914 was Swami Trigunatita, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. Dorothy recalled that, although she was then just a little girl, she was deeply impressed by Swami Trigunatita. Now and then he would come to her home to visit her parents, her, and her brother. At least once, Dorothy remembered, Swami Trigunatita held her on his lap. Once every week Dorothy used to go with her mother to the Hindu Temple at 2963 Webster Street, San Francisco, to see the Swami. "To others," she recalled, "Swami's office was cluttered up: to me it was finely ordered. There were stereopticon slides, a revolving globe of the world, Swami's resplendent watch fob, a roll-top desk piled high with papers, and no 'don't touch' admonitions." Finally, "There was a round, red stained glass window opening on the street which, on our last visit to his office, Swami told me was a motion picture." Later in her article Dorothy explained that the Swami had used this device to teach her that worldly things which one may think are real are only a passing show, having no lasting substantiality at all.
Later, as a young woman, Dorothy became acquainted with a second direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Abhedananda. He lived and worked in the San Francisco region from 1918 to 1921. "Not only did I go to all of Abhedananda's lectures and classes, but during this period I read Swami Vivekananda assiduously. I too wanted to be a philosopher, a sannyasin no less." Here Dorothy quotes from Swamiji's "Song of the Sannyasin":
Strike off thy fetters! Bonds that bind thee down
Of shining gold
. . .
"That I had no 'shining gold' to 'strike off' did not deter me from marching right along — in imagination."
By doing office work to earn funds to attend the university Dorothy gained a good education and eventually became a college teacher. She took one of her degrees at Oxford at the time when Dr. S. Radhakrishnan was there as Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics. For many years Dorothy was an instructor in English at the San Francisco City College. Among other subjects, she taught the Bhagavad-Gita as literature.
Dorothy died of cancer on Thursday, March 8, 1962, in San Francisco. Curiously, in 1962 Ramakrishna's birthday fell on that very same day, March 8. There was no funeral. Dorothy had willed her body to the University of California Medical School.
Although she lived most of the year in San Francisco, Dorothy used to travel south frequently. She had long vacations from her college at Christmastime and in the summer. Dorothy was a member of the Vedanta Society of Southern California and was a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda. She often spent her holidays as a guest at the Hollywood center. Over a period of years we grew to know Dorothy rather well.
Dorothy was nearly six feet tall. She wore spectacles. She was somewhat professorial in manner. Being slightly deaf, and furthermore being accustomed to addressing large classes of college students, she talked loudly and with intense positiveness. In the days before 1959 our dinner table was the scene for many strong pronouncements. Dorothy had an intense interest in Plato; probably one reason she admired Plato was that she felt the philosophy of Plato substantiated the philosophy of Vedanta in western terms. But Dorothy's interests were wide. She was an enthusiastic liberal and had strong convictions concerning the many situations in the world which were not, in her eyes, what they should be.
Being firmly convinced of the superiority of Vedanta, Dorothy could not see how anyone could but accept its teachings. Indeed, as Dorothy herself once jested, in her defense of the tolerant Vedanta her attitude bordered on intolerance!. In 1957 she started writing a book for western readers, whose purpose was to set forth the logicality of Vedanta philosophy. As part of this effort Dorothy conceived the idea of distributing a questionnaire, to be answered by members of the Vedanta societies in America, telling of their satisfaction with the faith they had accepted. This questionnaire was sent to more than two hundred Vedanta members, of whom nearly half responded. Dorothy felt that these first-hand testimonies of the respondents would be useful in providing evidence supporting the special excellence of Vedanta theory and practice.
We in the Hollywood center could see, of course, that beneath her academic exterior, her nondualistic leanings, Dorothy had a good sense of humor and was basically a lovable and loving person. She certainly was most generous. Still and all, she was very argumentative, very severe in her judgments of those having views differing from her own. In those pre-1959 days we at the Vedanta Society of Southern California mostly thought of Dorothy as a well-meaning but very dry intellectual.
Then in 1958-1959, on a sabbatical from her college, Dorothy went to India. She stayed from November through March, and as a ward of the Ramakrishna Mission toured India with characteristic energy. In the letters she wrote to Hollywood, in a detailed account of her pilgrimage composed in India and mailed to us from abroad, and most of all in the changed attitude she manifested upon her return, we saw the emergence of a different person.
It can easily be imagined that many things in India were upsetting to Dorothy. She was an idealist, to whom every human's economic well-being, opportunity for social progress, and physical welfare meant much. The poor conditions which she saw on her trip distressed her a great deal.
Yet the goodness she encountered, the sweetness of the people, the charm of the children, the devotional qualities expressed by common men and women — these more than made up for all the sights of human misery. And particularly touching was the affection expressed toward her by many swamis of the Ramakrishna Order.
Dorothy wrote just before leaving India, in a letter dated March 23, 1959, and postmarked Belur Math: "This is the last letter from this beloved address." In that letter she went on to describe how a number of young men, who had just been initiated into sannyas and brahmacharya, on Ramakrishna's birthday, had come to the quarters she shared with two or three other western visitors, to perform their first act of ceremonial begging. "The day after Sri Ramakrishna's birthday," she wrote, "the new swamis and brahmacharis came to us to beg. To feed forty-nine young men radiant with love is quite an experience. On Sri Ramakrishna's birthday they [the sannyasins to be] attended their own funeral; the next day they were reborn in God. They were living in such a beautiful, bright haze that we were almost overcome. One of our members had to leave the room she was so close to tears. I wasn't close to tears; I seemed to partake of their happiness."
The account of her experiences, which Dorothy sent to us before her return, was equally indicative. In her descriptions of the holy places she had gone to in India, the rituals she had witnessed, the devotional qualities she had observed, we saw that Dorothy had truly understood and appreciated the spirit of the country. Perhaps the most revealing statement in the article was that she mentioned, with obvious pleasure, that she was being addressed by Indians as "Mother Dorothy". Mother Dorothy! We could imagine nothing less characteristic of the person we knew than that she should appear motherly — and moreover that she should take pleasure in so appearing and in being so addressed. Obviously something had happened to Dorothy.
After her return from India, Dorothy continued to spend her vacations with us. But now the subject matter of our table conversations was very different. Dorothy talked of nothing but the people and places she had known in India, connected with Sri Ramakrishna and his Math and Mission. She often described the love expressed by several of the senior swamis: Gurudas Maharaj (Swami Atulananda, described at the end of this chapter) whom she had known when she was a little girl in San Francisco; Swamis Madhavananda and Dayananda, who had worked for a time in the mid-twenties in the Vedanta Society of Northern California and were already known to her; Swami Shankarananda, the President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission; "lovable" Bharat Maharaj (Swami Abhayananda); and "dear" Sujji Maharaj (Swami Nirvanananda). The inspiring, and the bizarre, experiences she had had now animated the table talk. The old argumentative, didactic personality had vanished. How comfortable it was now to be with Dorothy! It was obvious that, as one of our number remarked, "India made Dorothy a devotee."
But there was not much time remaining for Dorothy to enjoy India in retrospect. She had been vouchsafed her experience; it had done for her what was to have been done; and she was soon to vanish from this world. In the summer of 1961 Dorothy came to stay with us in Hollywood as usual. But by August she was experiencing severe physical difficulties and thought it best to hasten back to her doctor in San Francisco. It was discovered that Dorothy had cancer of a type which spread with great rapidity. She was almost continually in the hospital from the autumn until she died in the following spring.
During the fall and winter we did not hear from Dorothy directly. We do not know what her thoughts consisted of during this time. Probably she kept her silence because, with typical independence — and perhaps with a new evenness of mind — she did not want to make herself a problem to others. But we kept informed as to her condition through some of her relatives who lived in San Francisco. In late February these relatives let us know that Dorothy probably had very little time to live. I was sent to San Francisco, as a representative of Swami Prabhavananda and Dorothy's many friends at the Center, to express the love of those in Hollywood and to see whether there was anything she needed or wanted. I took with me a vial of precious Ganges water. It is customary in India for those who are about to die to take Ganges water, thus feeling blessed and purified. Dorothy knew about this custom.
The person I saw, when I walked into Dorothy's hospital room, was almost unrecognizable. It was heartbreaking to see how old and emaciated Dorothy had become. As best I could I gave her the messages from Hollywood. On her part, in halting voice, interrupted by spells of weakness, Dorothy spoke again of the familiar, sweet experiences of her happy time in India.
I went back to see Dorothy the following day. "Dorothy," I asked, "is there anything you need, anything that anyone can do for you? Swami Prabhavananda will come to see you if you want him to. And, Dorothy, maybe you would like to have this." I placed the small bottle on the bedside table. "It is Ganges water".
For a moment Dorothy was almost like her old severe self again. "I am not going to die. I am going to recover. It is very dear of Swami to offer to come to see me. But it will not be necessary at all." But I think it was then that Dorothy made her final surrender. Within a week she had sent word that, yes, she would appreciate seeing her guru.
Swami Prabhavananda went to San Francisco to see Dorothy on March 2. Dorothy accepted with great devotion the Ganges water that the Swami gave her. She said she knew what it meant. She told Swami: "I know I am going to die; and it is all right." She said that she was maintaining, every moment, the recollectedness of Sri Ramakrishna. She said: "I know that Swami Trigunatita is going to come for me." And this is how, six days later, it was.
Her name was Mlle. Henriette Girre, and she lived in Marseille. Her Indian name was Nalini, the name of one of the seven branches of the Ganges. Like the river she was named after, Nalini brought good to all, without asking anything for herself. Nalini exemplified a perfect case of a bhakta regarding herself as the Lord's instrument. I respect her for her modesty, her serviceability, and her self-effacement.
I never knew her exact age nor much of her early life. She was quite a bit older than I and was a disciple of Swami Siddheswarananda. She was by profession a stenographer. At some point she had acquired a good knowledge of English. When I came to know her she was working for a coal merchant. She should have been retired, but her employer was an old man and she felt he needed her. Her job was doing the accounting and typing up monthly bills.
Nalini was not very rich. She lived alone in an old-fashioned unheated flat. But her dull job and her uncomfortable personal existence didn't seem to bother her. She was like a sadhu in her habits. Her passion was translating Ramakrishna texts from English into French. This is how she spent her evenings and her week ends, and doing this was what made her happy. "I do it for Mother," she used to say. "It's the only service of which I am capable."
Unbidden, Nalini translated book after book. The Bhagavad Gita, For Seekers of God, the unabridged Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna which makes up more than a thousand manuscript pages, and many other texts. These were given freely to us at Gretz to be used as we wished. I have used the word "instrument" in a metaphorical sense — but she was an instrument also in a literal sense — indeed almost a machine. She translated directly from the original, concentrating on the English original with her eyes while her fingers all the time turned out a graceful French equivalent on the typewriter.
In the early years at Gretz I wrote out my Sunday lectures in English and sent them to Nalini in order that she could make the French version which I should later pronounce on Sunday. She loved to do this and would have the French text back by return mail in just a day or two. I felt guilty letting the congregation think that the expressive French language was my own, but she never wanted to be credited as translator. "No, no, that's our secret," she would say.
As Nalini grew older I worried about her living alone and insisted that she install a telephone so that she could summon aid in case of need. For some time she resisted this idea because she wouldn't want to bother anyone should such a necessity arise. "Mother will take care of me," was the excuse she gave. The phone finally installed was used chiefly by me calling from Gretz to see how she was.
And the Divine Mother did look after Nalini and granted her wish that she should never be a bother to anybody. On that last day the neighbor from upstairs came and knocked on the door, just to say good morning. Nalini had not been feeling well and had stayed in bed. But the knock aroused her; she got up to go to the door to see who was there. As the neighbor entered, as silently and as modestly as she had lived, Nalini expired.
Nalini was a model to me of ready service coupled with perfect self-effacement. She would have been willing to disappear without a trace. Thus I am glad that I can memorialize her in this little sketch, as an example of devotion's power to perfect.
In its complete version, the New York edition of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna is a large volume running to some eleven hundred pages. It was translated by Swami Nikhilananda from M.'s original five volumes in Bengali. This book is on its way to being considered one of the most important religious works of the world. Editions in numerous foreign languages have been issued or are in preparation.
Most devotees have read the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna from beginning to end, probably several times. Or they keep the volume on the bedside table and study a page or two nearly every night before going to sleep, as was, for example, Swami Madhavananda's habit. Most devotees are familiar with the incidents related, with what Ramakrishna counseled, with — in a general way — the numerous contemporaries who people the Gospel, with the Master's proverbs and parables. But try to track down a particular reference! Among the hundreds of thousands of words in this great book, finding what you want when you want it is nearly impossible. True, there is a short index, a glossary of Vedantic terms, and an index to first lines of songs, but these are of little help in specific cases.
Well, recently something has occurred to change all that. Early in 1985 there appeared the Concordance to the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, New York Edition. This must be one of the best and most complete scriptural indexes ever devised. Its publication is a major event in the Ramakrishna chronicle. The Concordance is a tool capable of making the serious study of Ramakrishna's life and teaching very much easier and infinitely more profound. Untold thousands of future Ramakrishna enthusiasts will reverently thank its compiler.
The story of the development of this Concordance is an inspiring example of devotion at work. No Vedanta center in India or the West could have undertaken such a vast editorial effort We remember that the first concordance to the Bible, brought out in 1247, was reputedly compiled by Hugo de St. Caro with the aid of five hundred monks. And yet here is this Concordance, issued barely fifty years after the English publication of the complete Gospel, wonderfully well executed, all the work directed and the development costs borne by a devotee.
The Concordance is nearly 650 pages long, its format that of the size of typing paper. There are, arranged in double columns, seventy to eighty subject entries per page, making something like forty or fifty thousand references and cross references. Every word Sri Ramakrishna uttered, every teaching he gave, every example he used, every song he sang or listened to, every person he addressed his remarks to may quickly be found by page number and position on the page of the New York Gospel.
There follows an appendix on Ramakrishna's religious experiences and ecstatic states, with indications as to where references to them are to be found.
Next comes a fifty-page appendix identifying, with biographical information and an explanation of their significance in the Ramakrishna story, relatives, disciples, acquaintances, and other contemporaries of the Master. I counted more than four hundred, and the pages in the Gospel where they are mentioned are all indicated. Having this biographical dictionary at hand will enormously aid those admirers of Ramakrishna who, like me, can never seem to keep in mind exactly who is who among the many persons he encountered.
There is then an appendix containing the names of all the deities, incarnations, and historical personages referred to in the Gospel, with page numbers on which they are mentioned. Finally there is an appendix listing Thakur's prayers, and finally an index to the songs and authors of songs which appear in the Gospel. The name of the devotee who carried through this project is Miss Katharine Whitmarsh, or Prasanna.
The name Whitmarsh will be found in works pertaining to Swami Vivekananda, for her family was associated with and indeed connected by marriage to Swami Vivekananda's American friends, the Leggetts. Miss MacLeod was Prasanna's aunt. Prasanna was present, aged two years, at Ridgely Manor during the "great summer" of 1899 when Swami Vivekananda was there. Prasanna recalls Vivekananda vaguely, remembers that he gave her a penny.
Prasanna's interest in Sri Ramakrishna increased with the passage of the years. She came to live in Santa Barbara near the convent of the Vedanta Society and began in earnest, at first for her own use, to index the Gospel. As she says in the Preface of the Concordance, "It was natural, therefore, when I began my study to the Gospel, that I should begin making notes of phrases and key words whose location I wanted to remember, keeping them in a special notebook. As this private index grew, it became more comprehensive and elaborate and finally had to be transferred first to 5" x 7" cards and then to 3" x 5" cards (some 40,000 of them). Thus one might say the Concordance was born in the form of notebooks, from which it went through several transitions: to cards, to typewritten 11" x 17" sheets, and finally into a computer, the total process occurring over a period of some fiften years." Further on in the Preface Prasanna gives thankful credit to the large staff of helpers (some paid workers and some devotee aides who contributed their time) who helped her. All expenses were born by her.
The work is done now and will remain for years as a monument to the inspiration brought into the life of one devoted person by Sri Ramakrishna. Prasanna completes her Preface with these words: "The benefits of dealing with Sri Ramakrishna's words and teachings on a consistent basis are impossible to evaluate or describe, but the presence of his thought in our lives can only be an asset of the most valuable kind. All of us who have had an opportunity to participate in this work have been blessed by it, and I am grateful to be able to offer this Concordance to all users of the English translation of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, whoever and wherever they may be."
The first time I met Chester F. Carlson was in December, 1963, at Belur Math in India. Swami Nikhilananda visited India for the Centenary Celebrations of Swami Vivekananda, accompanied by several devotees of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York. Among them was Mrs. Max Beckman, widow of the celebrated German painter, and Mr. Carlson.
All I knew about Mr. Carlson at the time was that he was the President of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center. It was not until later that I read the "Reader's Digest" account of his success as inventor of xerography and consequent wealth. Hence, not having been rendered respectful by his name and the millions behind him, I was able to treat Chet as the very nice, simple person that he was. He was friendly to me, very much interested in the fact that I was at that time participating in the week-long ceremonies that mark one's entrance into sannyas. He took my picture several times.
Speaking of photography, I had a good Zeiss camera and a considerable amount of advanced photo equipment with me, as I intended to do a lot of photographing in India. Chet had a a tiny, toy-like camera which hardly needed any focusing. I rather deprecated his photographic activities, but thought that after all such a simple camera was probably appropriate for such a simple man! Later I understood that this camera was one of the first Instamatics, which had been given to Chet by one of the officials of the Kodak company of Rochester, so that he, as an accomplished engineer and world-famous inventor, might test out its performance. The Instamatic, as we know, proved to be a revolutionary advance in the field of popular photography.
It was only four years later that Chet died, on September 19, 1968. "The New York Times" printed a long obituary, together with a photo of Chet with a model of his first dry copying machine, which was to make the name Xerox a word known internationally and its inventor one of the richest men in America.
In the summer of 1965 Chet and his wife Dorris visited us in Santa Barbara, where I was then living. Chet came to look at Robert Maynard Hutchins' Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, as he was considering giving the Hutchins center a grant. We were pleased to meet Dorris, who had for some years sponsored a project through which the bookshop of the Vedanta Society of Southern California distributed religious books to prison libraries.
I visited the Carlsons at their home in Pittsfield, New York, in March, 1966, on the way to take up my new post at Gretz. Both were kind and generous. Chet spoke a little about the problem of having a lot of money and trying to use it wisely. There were so many demands. Any proffer of interest or friendship might conceal motives of calculation. Ordinary human intercourse became strained. One wanted to be generous, but generous in a manner which would help, not corrupt, the recipient. Chet referred to his present role as that of a "prudent distributor". Being that constituted a nearly full-time job and a good deal of anxiety, plus discrimination of the subtlest sort. It was a new idea to me that just as having very little money brings problems, so does the possession of great wealth.
It was then that Chet mentioned that if I had some research project in mind I could call on him for — he never used the word money — "support". I did have such a project, the tracing of Swami Vivekananda's activities in Europe in 1896-1900, which had never up to that time been undertaken. I carried out this investigation during the next years, the work resulting in seven or eight articles on Vivekananda in Europe, published in English in the "Prabuddha Bharata", and later as a book in Bengali — a work which subsequent biographers of the Swami have found useful as a reference. Chet, through the Shanti Foundation, met the expense of this research to the extent of $1,500. Lovers of Vivekananda should know this.
Later, Chet visited the Centre Védantique Ramakrichna during a Sunday in 1967. He was on his way to Germany to take delivery of a new Mercedes, which he said he considered easier to drive than his current Lincoln. His time with us was very short and the only sightseeing I could offer was to take him to see a newly completed modern Catholic church and community center in the nearby town of Grisy. Chet was interested and sweetly appreciative. He pleased us by showing that he accepted our attention as normal friendship toward a devotee, not as a potential benefactor, by leaving a donation of a mere 200 Francs (about $40.00).
In remembering Chet, I recall especially those days at Belur Math in1963-64. Swami Nikhilananda's attitude toward Chet was completely that of guru toward a disciple. The Swami didn't hesitate to exact services from Chet: "Mr. Carlson, see to it that a light bulb is found to replace this one which has burned out; Mr. Carlson, you will arrange the taxi for today's trip to Dakshineswar; Mr. Carlson, when you go to Calcutta today, you will kindly do the following for me . . ." In a good-humored, slightly amused way Chet did everything obediently. I cannot think of anyone I've ever known so devoid of self-importance.
At noon on the last day of January, 1955, at the Vivekananda Home of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, a small, lame, grey-haired woman died at the age of seventy-nine. Her name was Ida Merrill Winkley Ansell. Anyone would have said that there was nothing unusual about this event or about the life which had preceded it. And to a certain extent this is true. From any social or vocational standpoint Ida Ansell's life was rather routine. She was born in New York City, spent her childhood in Boston, and moved to the Pacific West Coast before reaching her teens. There she finished the eighth grade, studied shorthand and typing, and worked as a stenographer for many years, first in San Francisco and later in Los Angeles. After she retired, from 1948 on, she stayed at the Hollywood Vedanta center, where she lived as one of the monastic family and assisted with office work.
From a religious standpoint, however, as I have shown in section 2 of Chapter Six, Ida Ansell's life was extraordinary. For she was, from the time of Swami Vivekananda's second visit to the West, and until she died fifty-five years later, associated with many details of the work of the Ramakrishna Order in America. Five direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna came to the West; she met four of them: Swami Vivekananda, whose lectures and classes she attended in 1900; Swami Turiyananda, who initiated her as his disciple and gave her the name of Ujjvala — "the shining one"; Swami Abhedananda; and Swami Trigunatitananda. Of the second-generation swamis who came to the West, she knew and kept in touch with nearly every one. "Ujjie", as her friends called her, was a participant in, and a major witness of, the opening stages of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda movement in America.
And Ujjvala was among its first historians. This happened mostly by accident. True, she was interested in writing; she studied books on composition and always dreamed, as so many people do, of one day producing a literary masterwork. Historical subjects would not have interested her; her ambition was to be a glamorous lady novelist! But the years went by and the dream remained a dream. Then in her seventies Ujjvala realized that she possessed much valuable material in the accumulation of notes she had taken at the time she had known Swamiji and Swami Turiyananda. She came to understand that it was her obligation to give this material to the public. In doing so her lifetime desire to be an author was fulfilled. Her memories of Swami Vivekananda and Swami Turiyananda, published in "Vedanta and the West", were received eagerly. They were read appreciatively in America and Europe; in India they created a sensation and were translated into several Indian languages. These reminiscences have great value for the picture they give of the pioneering days of Vedanta in America. They are written in a candid, lively, childlike style, reflecting Ujjvala's personality.
Finally, Ujjvala began the most exacting literary job of all — the transcription of the shorthand notes she had taken in the spring of 1900 of thirteen lectures by Swami Vivekananda. (Four other lectures from her notes had been published previously in the Northern California center's "The Voice of India".) Her notes were "cold" as well as not always complete. She debated with herself as to whether the lectures should be given out at all, out of fear of doing violence to Swamiji's wonderful style and fluency. At last she came to this decision: "Now we see that Swamiji was a special messenger of God and that every word he said was full of significance. So even though my notes were somewhat fragmentary, I have yielded to the opinion that their contents are precious and must be given for publication." Completing the heavy labor of making these transcriptions only two months before she died, Ujjvala gave the publication rights to them to any organ of the Ramakrishna Order which might wish to use them. These lectures now form a part of Swamiji's Complete Works.
Ujjvala explained that the lectures were given in San Francisco, Oakland, and Alameda, in churches, in the Alameda and San Francisco Homes of Truth (New-Thought associations of that day), and in rented halls. Some were free to the public, and others were given in courses of three for a dollar. Altogether, she calculated Swamiji gave, besides daily interviews and informal classes, at least thirty to forty major addresses in March, April, and May. He was phenomenally prolific. "How he could speak so often and yet always with such originality is something no one has ever been able to explain," she remarked. "He himself confessed that tine after time on his lecture tours he felt exhausted intellectually and incapable of appearing the next day. Then, as his authorized life explains, he would be aided by an inner, sometimes outer, voice suggesting subjects and ideas."
Swamiji's lectures, Ujjvala recalled, attracted all levels of people, drawn by various incentives such as curiosity, interest, a desire for information, and a real yearning for truth. There was something in every one of Swamiji's discourses for each; and perhaps some of the apparent contradictions in them, she conjectured, were due to his attempt to help people at various stages of development.
As Ujjvala explained, "I was just an amateur stenographer at the time I took the notes of Swamiji's lectures. The only experience I had had was in connection with the talks of Miss Lydia Bell, the leader of one of the Homes of Truth of San Francisco. Miss Bell spoke slowly and deliberately, and I could almost always get down every word. But," Ujjvala explained, "one would have needed a speed of at least three hundred words per minute to capture all of Swamiji's torrents of eloquence. I possessed less than half the required speed, and at the time I had no idea that the material would have value to anyone but myself. In addition to his fast speaking pace, Swamiji was a superb actor. His stories and imitations absolutely forced one to stop writing, to enjoy watching him."
Thus Ujjvala must always have a definite place in the story of the development of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda movement in the West. But to those who knew her and lived with her, as I did, she was not a bit like a historical figure. She was an interesting person and a responsive friend. She was ingenuous, having the true, if sometimes tantalizing innocence of a child; it is significant that Swami Turiyananda often called her Baby. Ujjvala had a strong zest for life and had more vitality than many people half her age. It was an experience to hear her talk of the old days; a visit to her room was like a trip to a museum or an old curiosity shop crammed full of books, photographs, bric-a-brac, and other mementos accumulated during a long life. Sitting in her rocker in the midst of the congestion, Ujjvala would tell perhaps of how Swami Vivekananda had once made rock candy for her when she and other devotees spent some memorable weeks with him in 1900 at a summer retreat in Marin County. Or she would recall advice given by Swami Turiyananda more than fifty years before at Shanti Ashrama in central California where the Swami had begun to train a small band of students in work and meditation. She would take out from one of the innumerable boxes which overflowed the space on shelves, in drawers, and even under the bed, perhaps the stub of a ticket to one of Swamiji's San Francisco lectures, or a letter from Swami Turiyananda, or some rare photograph. When the daily worship was instituted at the Ramakrishna Monastery at Trabuco, Ujjvala gave as a holy relic for the Trabuco shrine her most precious possession, a portion of a yellow silk turban Swamiji had once owned and worn.
At Shanti Ashrama Ujjvala had made the acquaintance of Cornelius Heyblom, later Swami Atulananda, Gurudas Maharaj. The two became good friends and remained so until Ujjvala's death. During most of their fifty years of acquaintance Gurudas Maharaj lived in India, but the relationship was maintained through a twice-monthly exchange of letters. What Ujjvala wrote to Gurudas Maharaj is not known, but his letters to her, found after her death, comprised a great trove, carefully preserved by date. Ujjvala was by nature curious, and since she loved India, especially curious about that country. Probably her letters to Gurudas Maharaj contained questions about his life in India, together with reports concerning the people he had formerly known at the Center and comments on the political and religious events of the day. Gurudas Maharaj replied with fascinating descriptions of the daily life he pursued as a western sadhu established in India. He replied also to her small talk, often humorously, by urging her to carry on her daily tasks with intelligence, and take a Vedantic view of people and events The correspondence of Gurudas Maharaj to Ujjvala has been published in the recent book With the Swamis in American and India.
When I first met Gurudas Maharaj in India in 1953 he immediately asked for the latest news of Ujjvala. He wondered what he might send her. It was decided that this should be a cane, which I purchased in the Kankhal bazaar and carried on the trip back to Los Angeles. Ujjvala was delighted and used Gurudas Maharaj's gift continually from then on. She was not parted from it even in death; I slipped the beloved Indian cane, given by her oldest friend and brought directly from what was to her the Holy Land, into her casket; it and her old body were cremated together.
Some of the most entertaining of the reminiscences Ujjvala used to recount concerned her experiences during the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 I have Ujjvala's notes describing this momentous event and its effect on her life; they are so lively and give such a vivid portrait of her that I cannot resist the temptation to include them in this account. Should I not do so they might easily be lost forever.
On the 18th of April in 1906, "Mother Nature, herself, awakened us", as Swami Trigunatita said in his lecture the following Sunday. It was a rough awakening and produced an upheaval in half a million lives. Many thousands were made suddenly homeless and lost all their possessions except what they could carry with them. With some the shock somewhat marred their judgment as to what was essential. I saw a bewildered gentleman pushing a carpetsweeper in front of him. There were no streetcars running. In many places the tracks were wrenched loose and had become broken and twisted masses of steel. The water mains were broken and control of the many fires that started south of Market Street was impossible. Martial law was immediately declared and warnings posted that pilferers would be shot. A five-story hotel in the Mission District sank in the ground to the level of the fourth story, so that the occupants who were not hurt just walked upstairs and out onto the sidewalk. It was a great leveler of rank, and for a time there was real democracy. I saw a little Japanese boy with his head on the lap of a fur-coated lady who was sitting on the steps of a Nob Hill mansion to rest her aching feet.
After the first shock the adaptability and resourcefulness of the people were amazing; tent colonies were soon established in the city parks for those whose homes were destroyed; big auditoriums were used to house the sick and injured; doctors and nurses volunteered their services; the government distributed blankets and food; barrels of hot coffee were made in the Presidio and anyone passing by who felt a need of a little stimulant could dip in the tin cup lying there and drink all he wanted. A few took refuge in neighboring towns, but the great majority remained, and were actually able to enjoy the experience. Those whose homes remained standing shared their sleeping facilities with others, but could have neither fire nor light. Many erected little makeshift stoves on the curb in front of the home. Some put fences around the stoves to keep off the wind, and on one such fence we read a sign in big letters: "Palace Hotel." Many quickly accepted the situation gamely, made light of the hardships, and the ruined city gained the atmosphere of an immense picnic and a very genial hilarity prevailed. Even while the city was still burning, clearing of the ruined portions began. Arnold Genthe, the famous photographer, who lost all his possessions including his life's work and a valuable art collection, wandered all over the city even while preparations were being made to destroy his home [to help the firebreak] taking memorable photos of endless variety.
Food supplies and money were soon received from all parts of the nation and later from all over the world. Food distribution depots were established in many places, and rich and poor alike stood in line to get their allotment. Swami Trigunatita permitted me to go to the ashrama for a rest. Grandma Reynolds and I took a position until the reestablishment funds were available and then rented space in the hallway of an apartment building on the corner of Franklin Avenue and O'Farrell Street, one block from Van Ness Avenue, which now became the main street of the city. We knew that there would be plenty of business for public stenographers; and the amount allotted was sufficient to obtain two typewriters and a multigraph. All the big department stores and restaurants put up one-story wooden buildings. It was like a country town having a grand celebration of some special event. Flags were waving on all the buildings.
Although the atmosphere was one of gaiety, there was plenty of work to do. Many times we worked all night, going first to the Poodle Dog or some other French restaurant for dinner. Then we worked merrily for the first half of the night, drowsily but steadily for the second. We employed a young stenographer to help, and Grandma's ten-year old son Franklin became our officeboy and delivered the daily menus which we multigraphed for the Toke Point Oyster House and the Golden Pheasant. We took many of our meals at these places, and Franklin, wishing enlightenment regarding the various unknown food items listed, would also have a morning snack when he delivered the menus, selecting some unfamiliar item such as paté de fois gras. He was often disappointed.
Soon the work became so heavy that we decided to expand a little. We added a small room that had been used as a servant's room and used it for a dictation room. There I took dictation from various celebrities, from a prizefighter for whom I wrote a contract, to Father Sasia, Dean of the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church, who used to come before breakfast to dictate letters. Working for him was an ideal beginning of the day's work. Then, finding that so much time was lost in coming to the office and going home, we rented the large former kitchen behind our office, which became parlor, kitchen, and bedroom. A piano was added against the huge French range which we did not use. That was our sitting room. In one corner we had a breakfast nook, with a gas plate and a small cupboard. The remaining corner formed a bedroom for Grandma and Franklin. I slept on the back porch which was screened in for the purpose. We remained there until space was available for the office in a downtown building.
Back in the early 1950's I was given to appraising everyone. I had not yet fully understood the import of that intriguing verse in the Bhagavad-Gita affirming the fact that everyone follows his own nature, "even the sage". I was trying to judge Vedanta to see whether it worked, and Vedantists to see if the religion they professed changed and improved them. It was natural that I should attempt to evaluate an old-time Vedantist like Ujjvala. To my unpracticed eye of that period Ujjvala seemed vaguely worldly. She had a lively interest in the news scandals of the day, she loved to go to movies, and there was something hedonistic (or so it seemed to me) about her considerable fondness for sweets. Occasionally she would get mad at us and take refuge in a restaurant at the base of Ivar Hill, walking there rapidly and determinedly with the aid of her cane. Arrived at this destination, she would console herself by ordering pancakes drenched in syrup. As soon as I sensed what had happened I would get out the Center's car and bring her back. On these occasions she would be remorseful like a scolded puppy. By then Alfred Kinsey's monumental book on the human male had become a bestseller. Ujjvala went through the volume concealed inside an issue of the Prabuddha Bharata. Much of this apparent waywardness stemmed no doubt from the fact that Ujjvala had been a cripple since childhood and had been forced to live vicariously, experiencing very little of life except as an onlooker.
In any case, any doubt I might have had about Ujjvala's inner condition was resolved when she died. I was present during her final hours, and I know that Ujjvala was in contact with something or someone divine in her last moments. I know that whatever she may have seemed outwardly, Ujjvala inwardly was the loving child of Swamiji and his master and brethren.
The story is this. The brahmacharini who came to her room, as was usual, about seven o'clock on that Monday morning, found Ujjvala in bed, unconscious. She had been her usual lively self the evening before, having especially enjoyed some chocolate fudge I had made. We had, all of us, been sitting in Swami Prabhavananda's room. Suddenly Prabhavananda had asked Ujjvala: "Ujjvala, have you become butter?" He later said that the question had come to him unexpectedly and that he had given expression to it without quite knowing why. This was a reference to something Swami Turiyananda had told her around 1900 at Shanti Ashrama, that if she worked hard at spiritual life she could become butter. (The allusion of course being that one's sadhana is a process of separating what is useful and precious in one's true nature from what is worthless.) To everyone's surprise, as Ujjvala by nature tended to be self-deprecating, she had firmly replied: "Yes!"
The doctor stated that Ujjvala had had a massive stroke in her sleep. I went to her room. She was very attached to me, so I knew that I could rouse her if anyone could. In effect a certain consciousness did return, only to reject my salutations, as if to say, "Now let me be; I have serious things to do" and plunge inside again. It went on like this until about noon. Then she whispered "Mother", and tears flowed from the outside of her eyes. Swami Turiyananda had once told her: "What you want, you will get. If you want entertainment, you will get entertainment. If you want Mother you will get Mother." In an instant — from the dramatic change which came over her face — yes, it changed from flesh to clay — I saw that Ujjvala had died. Swami Prabhavananda had waited gravely in his room. When I brought him the news, he said, "Her guru came for her."
Earlier chapters of this book have amply — crankily, perhaps — shown that to me orderliness is next to — if not superior to — godliness. Writing is a means of ordering thought; after writing follows architecture, which is a means of ordering matter, or thought incarnated as matter. Indeed, according to classical schemes, architecture among all the arts is the one which most boldly tries to reproduce in its rhythm the order of the universe.
My life was enriched by my acquaintance with one who practiced this art — a superb architect. She was not what you would call a spiritual seeker in the usual sense. But her pursuit of perfection, beauty, harmony — all attributes of the spiritual — would put the ardor of ordinary devotees to shame. The nearest thing I ever heard her say about religion was, when someone asked her what her clients the Vedantists believed, was, approvingly: "Why, they believe in everything." Asked in an interview what a home should represent, she replied: "Shelter from the elements, a place of retreat and rest, a place of happiness if possible, and enough beauty to provide a life for the spirit."
Her name was Miss Lutah Maria Riggs. Lutah was the architect of our beautiful temple at Santa Barbara. I was the Society's representative in this and another of her projects, the temple gatehouse, so I grew to know her well. She had constructed many other notable buildings in the Santa Barbara area. In her later years she was nationally honored in many ways, including being named Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. The Vedanta temple and several other of her productions became recognized as classic buildings and are regular stops on organized tours of Santa Barbara. The fact that the temple was designed by Lutah and is a recognized masterpiece helped snobbish Santa Barbara accept rapidly something as unaccustomed as an organization drawing its inspiration from India.
Lutah was born in 1896 in Toledo, Ohio, and came to Santa Barbara to work in about 1930. She was not physically beautiful; indeed she was short and inclined to stoutness. She cared little for clothes and often wore a shapeless dark dress with a large coat which enveloped the dress and herself, almost as though she was trying to make herself disappear. Because she had no time to take proper care of her hair, and anyway considered personal grooming useless coquetry, she wore a sort of bandeau to obscure her lack of coiffure. To see her slowly walking down the street (she had had polio as a girl and had trouble with her feet) you would have thought that you were observing a peasant woman perhaps from some country in Eastern Europe.
For Lutah's real interest was her profession. Herself as a person hardly mattered to her; her concentration was on her creative activity; it was almost as though she as a body which needed to eat and bathe and sleep was of no importance. There existed only a wonderful creative mind bent on bringing order and beauty into existence.
Lutah was the embodiment of respect and I learned respect from her. First of all she respected people. The first thing she did when meeting someone new was to clearly set down his or her name. This she would memorize systematically, and always use his name when speaking of or to that person. To her, making mistakes in the pronunciation or spelling of someone's name were major breaches of good conduct. She always addressed people by their names and never forgot them even after years of absence.
She was courteous to all but hesitated, I think, about accepting commissions from people she felt might be of an unsympathetic nature. And it is true that not all potential clients cared to have her work for them, as she was reputed to be too meticulous and slow. To her a client was the same as a patient is to a good doctor or a disciple to a conscientious guru. She considered it was her responsibility to see that her client got the building he wanted and deserved and needed, and she would stop at nothing till that end had been accomplished. This included at times presenting the case of her client before the municipal authorities to solve objections concerning zoning or other regulations. If she agreed to do a house for a client, she studied thoroughly the client's character and living habits and then slowly and thoughtfully created a building which would suit those habits — and at the same time add joy and tranquility to his life. I lived for a while in one of the houses Lutah had designed, and I can testify to the fact that the arrangement of rooms and facilities, the way the house fitted its surroundings, and the feel the house gave one made living there a joy.
It is understandable that Lutah's building projects were often behind schedule and more expensive than had been anticipated. She held the long-term view; her buildings were meant to endure and to give satisfaction for a long time. Her architectural drawings were finely drawn, very painstakingly rendered, and many details were drafted at actual size. But if during the construction she found something that needed modifying she usually recommended modifying it. Her ego did not prevent her from admitting that the original conception could be improved. Such changes cost the client money, but she herself sacrificed her time and the payment normally due her for the extra time spent, in the interest of producing a better building. And of course since she worked so selectively and deliberately Lutah remained poor all her life.
Thus Lutah respected, first of all, people who became her clients. Secondly, she respected the site where the new building was to be constructed. Santa Barbara is a beautiful city set on sloping land between the mountains and the Pacific. She never did violence to a site by bulldozing everything away so as to start with a flat and arid piece of terrain. She saved the existing trees and other natural features, fitting the construction in as though it had been there always. Our temple was built on the side of the mountain where nothing had existed before except big boulders and savage vegetation. All this was preserved and indeed enhanced. Thus Lutah respected nature.
And she respected worthy physical materials and their own characteristics and used them to the best effect: wood, stone, metal, fabrics. To make cement cure properly, so that it would dry slowly and never crack, it is supposed to be kept wet for twenty-eight days. How many builders observe this? But Lutah did. She respected cement and gave cement its due. Thus I had to wet down with a hose the foundations of our temple twice a day for four weeks before anything further was done on the site. To give beautiful acoustics and a reposeful atmosphere the temple was built almost entirely of wood. A special wood preservative was applied to every piece of wood that went into the construction. Hence nothing would rot or warp in the future. The interior was supported by wooden columns, some twenty-eight in all. They had to be, not posts found in the lumberyard, but the trunks of trees which had had their bark stripped off. "Big and round and solid like this," she explained, throwing her arms out in a wide embracing gesture. These pillars and the walls were finished naturally with nothing but wax, applied with a hand-rubbing using fine steel wool. During the finishing one of the pillars came out paler in color than the others. The decorator added a touch of paint in finishing that pillar to make it uniform with the others. Lutah spotted this articificiality immediately and was not amused. It did violence to naturalness; it was not an authentic action.
The result for us was a building which, upon seeing it and going into it, creates joy. "You don't have to make an effort to meditate in the Vedanta temple of Santa Barbara; there meditation comes upon you," is an often overheard commentary.
This was Lutah Riggs. Working with her was one of the great experiences of my life. She showed me what a true artist is, and how a real artist — bent on inserting some harmony and beauty and order into this chaotic world — is an inspiring example of the real votary. She served selflessly — perfect work for the sake of perfect work — the divinity of her choice. Such was her demonstration of reverence and respect. Some of those who knew Lutah spoke contemptuously of her as a perfectionist. Yes, she was not the architect for those who demanded a building speedily built in the style of the moment and executed as inexpensively as possible. But I think she would have accepted that appelation of "perfectionist" with satisfaction. That's exactly what she was. In her own particular fashion she was a real yogi.
Knowing Lutah had a great effect on me. Whenever I find myself doing something too rapidly, or imperfectly, or without deliberation — cutting corners to achieve a more-or-less acceptable result — I think of her and mend my ways. For in so working I am not showing respect for the material or the task or my fellow man for whom the action is performed.
When we constructed the new chapel built at Gretz in 1986-87 I tried to remember everything Lutah had taught me and work accordingly. She and I had discussed the Gretz project in a general way the last time we had met, in 1981. She strongly concurred in our feeling that the addition should be presented as a wing of the "château", designed in the same 1880 style. The consensus is that the result is thoroughly satisfactory — an addition which meets our needs, gives a feeling of repose, and adds to the dignity of the "château".
Lutah died on March 8, 1984. But she lives on as model and example in her work in Santa Barbara in the way I have indicated, in our new chapel at Gretz, and in my heart.
We have all heard stories about early Christians who were martyred because of their faith. I want now to recount a modern story about someone who lived a martyred life for many years in order to uphold a spiritual principle. This is an actual story concerning actual people whom I knew; but because the circumstances were so unusual and subject to misinterpretation I may be considered indiscreet should I reveal the names and places. I shall therefore use initials. The main character in the story, Swami A., may be seen as an example of someone who followed the behavior of a holy man literally, against great odds. Swami A., it should be noted, was a disciple of Maharaj, Swami Brahmananda.
There was in a large American city a Ramakrishna center headed by an Indian Swami whom I shall call Swami A. When he first arrived from India years ago he had had very little support and also suffered from poor health. His situation was really difficult. Then an American woman, Mme. W., took an interest in this Swami and helped him gradually establish the center and recover his health. Swami A.'s work began to assume a certain success; a good house in a prominent location was acquired, and devotees began to come.
Mme. W. assumed thus the role of manager of the center. In a sense she considered the Swami her product and more or less her protégé. Having been his original supporter, she resented the too close attentions of new devotees. It could almost be said that she wanted to keep the Swami as her personal property and the Center her private domain. She was a woman of strong nature and fought to keep her influence over the Swami. This is a situation which can occur anywhere — in political organizations, in business offices, in social situations, in churches, and, as I have said, even in Vedanta societies.
I shall recount my one encounter with Mrs. W. In 1952 when I set out for India I began the pilgrimage by visiting all the Vedanta societies in America and Europe. One of the American centers was that of which Swami A. was leader. It was situated in a city far from the main route of my itinerary, but to make my pilgrimage complete I made a big detour to go there. I had written the Swami in advance and received a welcome to visit him on a certain day at a certain hour.
I arrived at the Center at the moment agreed on and rang the doorbell; the door was opened by an unsmiling woman who demanded in an unfriendly tone what it was I wanted. I told her who I was and that I had an appointment with the Swami. "I shall see if he is here," she replied dryly, and closed the door in my face. I was surprised and anxious, since the visit had been arranged in advance, and it had cost me a considerable effort to reach that city.
After some time the door was opened and this woman, who now I understood to be Mme. W., said, grudgingly: "All right you can see the Swami, but don't stay long." Swami A., when I reached him, of course proved to be very gracious and in a sense apologized for the cold reception. This was my one and only encounter with Mme. W.
Gurudas Maharaj (Swami Atulananda) in his conversations, published as Atman Alone Abides recounts another incident concerning Mme. W. A new Swami, whom we shall call Saroj Maharaj, had arrived from India to work as assistant at this Center. He had been accepted by Mrs. W. unwillingly. Within a few days an event occurred which so offended Saroj Maharaj that he left the Center and returned to India, where for years afterwards he criticized the Vedanta work in America.
Of course the newcomer, Saroj Maharaj, was in a way at fault. Like many Indians, he had never been used to carrying his own baggage; carrying was the work of porters. He had not unlearned this traditional way of thinking. Early in his stay at the center to which I refer, he, Mrs. W., and Swami A. were to set out on an auto trip. The auto belonged to Mrs. W. and it was she who drove. The car was at the door and Mme. W. and Swami A. were seated in the car, ready to start. But where was Saroj Maharaj? Mrs. W. called up to his room. Saroj Maharaj thrust his head out the window and called out that he was ready too, but had no one to carry down his valise. Swami A, understanding the situation, went up and brought down the valise, so that the three travelers could depart. But Mrs. W was so incensed that the head of the Center and a senior swami was required to be the porter for the new assistant that she scolded Saroj Maharaj mercilessly, and from then on did all that she could to make his continued stay at the Center impossible.
But this is more than the story of a strong woman and a seemingly weak man. Swami A. understood the situation completely and took the position he did as a matter of principle. He could have divested himself of Mrs. W. but decided not to. Here is an explanation in the words of one of his disciples.
In either 1958 or 1959, when I was having an interview with Swami A., I asked him about Mrs. W. I don't remember my question exactly, but his answer was: "Swami Brahmananda sent her to me." When Swami Prabhavananda visited the Center in the mid 1960's, after Swami A. had died, somehow the talk one morning, with him alone, turned to Mrs. W., and I told him what Swami A. had said to me. Swami Prabhavananda's reply in regard to Swami A. was: "He was deluded." I didn't agree or disagree.
Since then in the last few years Mrs. P. in talking about Swami A., confided in me, regarding Mrs. W., that Swami A. had said to her: "I was told" [apparently by his guru] — this in a firm voice.
It could be said that Swami A. had an overwhelming love for Swami Brahmananda, who had told him what the nature of a holy man should be. The scorpion story was one that Swami A. recounted many times. [The parable of Sri Ramakrishna, of the scorpion which falls into the river and is in danger of being drowned. A holy man rescues the poor scorpion and is stung by it. Again the scorpion falls into the water and again the holy man rescues it, only to be stung again. Sri Ramakrishna explained that it was the nature of the scorpion to sting and of the holy man to be compassionate; and why should the holy man cease being compassionate just because he happened to get stung?] Also the story of Swamiji, when he said to a devotee: "Go to hell a thousand times and I shall take you out", and the example of Holy Mother's life and teachings.
Swami S. [who in time became the new assistant] has said that Swami A. was generous to a fault. Because he was so grateful to Mrs. W. for evidently "saving his life", although I do not known just what that occasion was, I think Swami A. found it impossible to do anything about her. "I can mitigate," he said once in regard to her. But there it ended. The scorpion story was always on his mind, plus whatever instruction Swami Brahmananda gave him, before his death and even after his death.
Let me relate an incident that may not be known. In August, 1955, another devotee and I stayed in M. [the Center's retreat house] for a week. Mrs. W. had said to me not to let G., an elderly devotee, come to the house.
Neither of us had a car and the garbage piled up. We had no way to dispose of it. Our problem was presented to Swami S., who asked G. to come and take away the garbage. Then on Saturday afternoon Mrs. W. drove up. We had just finished washing the kitchen floor. She went out on the screened porch and sat down and we sat at the other end. Then I had to explain about G. — and what a dressing down I got! Mrs. W. decided that I could not come down to M. for the second week I had planned on. She was macho and tough. Talk about a dictatorial empress! She was that!
So with grief and disappointment and hurt feelings and my tail between my legs like a forlorn puppy I went home. In September one morning Swami A. telephoned and asked whether I could meet him in the Hotel L. at 10:00 o'clock on a certain morning. So I did. I can still see Swami walking to the hotel, as I watched for his coming, his hat on his head, walking steadily, not hurrying. This was how I had an interview wih him. It had to be a surreptitious one.
Anyhow, during the interview I brought up the hiss story of Sri Ramakrishna. [The story of the cobra which was told not to bite but was allowed to hiss in self-protection.] Swami A said that I was not even to hiss. The message was to bear everything.
Are we to suppose that Brahmananda was indifferent to Swami A. and his situation? He must have helped him to bear Mrs. W. and showered him with blessings. His successor, Swami S., said to me a few months ago that Swami A. was a great saint. Someone once told me, if I remember correctly, that Swami A. had said that he didn't expect to be understood. Dr. P., a psychiatrist, and one of Swami A's disciples, told me in 1955: "Swami has the patience of a Job."
He was also, one might say, the embodiment of tactfulness and gentleness. Once in one of his sermons he was giving his ideas concerning the spreading of religion in a foreign country. He quoted: "Be as gentle as doves and as wise as serpents." His approach to the Christian community was that. He always stessed seeing the good side, so his appreciation of Christ warmed the Christian ministers to him. One of his medical advisers, a doctor whom I knew, said to me about having an interview with Swami A: "It was like talking with God." This was the wonderful feeling Swami gave people.
Too bad I was not advanced enough, pure enough, to get the full benefit. I asked him once "What will I have?" — meaning in regard to spiritual experience. With warm emphasis Swami said to me: "You will have everything." That's how good he was to people.
I wish to add a word from myself. I have been puzzled by this story, and as indicated above, my guru was contemptuous of Swami A's tolerance of Mrs. W. He often said that she drove potential devotees away and practically ruined the Center. But as the years have passed I think I have begun to understand and appreciate the greatness of Swami A.
Ramakrishna said that a householder may protect himself by hissing. But a monk may not even hiss. And he spoke many times of the virtue of forbearance: "He who forbears lives," were his words. In addition, we remember Jesus's words, quoted in Matthew 18:22: "Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven."
Swami A. gave us a lesson in forbearance. Have we not all seen situations in which a person was burdened with a difficult relationship — an associate with a terrible character, a perpetually unfaithful wife or husband, a parent crippled or sick year after year, with no cure possible, the daughter forced to renounce her own life and look after an invalid relative? As spiritual people, what is our response to such situations? Swami A. gave a marvelous example of how to deal with them. He chose to martyrize himself, to endure Mrs. W. and her particular form of malady. If we sincerely believe that our life is directed by Sri Ramakrishna, and that all the events which occur are ordained by him, what other attitude can we take to such impossible people as was Mrs. W. except to practice the splendid virtue of absolute forbearance?
In Swami A. I witnessed a convincing example of this virtue.
This section will deal with Amiya, or Sister Amiya, who joined the British aristocracy in mid-life and became the Countess of Sandwich. She is a historical character, in that for the first part of her life she was intimately connected with the early development of the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Then, at fifty, in marrying the Earl of Sandwich, she became linked with the family of the great friends of Swami Vivekananda in the West, the Leggetts. Amiya became, thus, by marriage, a neice once removed of Josephine MacLeod, or Tantine. Any historian considering the wider sweep of the Vivekananda story must take account of Amiya.
But I have chosen instead to treat Amiya in this chapter on "Evidences of the Faith" for another reason. Because she exemplified childlike — yes she remained essentially a little girl all her life, despite highly visible appearances to the contrary — childlike faith in her guru; and secondly because she received from her guru so much "undeserved" grace.
Amiya was born Ella Sully near Glastonbury in Western England in 1902. She was one of nine daughters. I asked her once if her father had been a farmer. She replied: "Less than that." I take it that he had been a simple agricultural laborer.
She emigrated to the United States in the 1920's in search of employment. For awhile she worked with a sister in Los Angeles as a seamstress. Some time in the early 1930's she made her way up Ivar Hill, in Hollywood, to Sister Lalita's bungalow, to attend a lecture on Vedanta by Swami Prabhavananda. Shortly afterwards she joined the household as a sort of housekeeper. Whether she received a fixed salary or was given according to need some share of the meager offerings left in the Sunday collection plate, I do not know. In any case, she served as aide to the aging Sister Lalita and "right hand man" to the Swami. As years passed other residents joined the household; eventually brahmacharya was given and Ella Sully (or Corbin, since she had married long before, before leaving England) became Sister Amiya.
The newcomers were younger than Amiya and proved to be more adaptable than she to religious life. Amiya was rajasic; she wanted to dress well, to have a good time, to go out. When I joined the Prabhavananda household in 1950 I saw her as a discontented and restless person. Prabhavananda's frequent demands that she make some strenuous effort to deepen her spiritual life did not interest her seriously. Amiya had become a problem to the Center and to herself. Particularly to me; she possessed the authority of long association with the Swami and the Centre, but followed no visible discipline, providing, I felt, a bad example. Once I complained about her to Swami Prabhavananda. He was severe in his reply: "Never judge a situation until you know the end of the story."
It was in 1952 that George Montagu, the 9th Earl of Sandwich, arrived at our center to pay a visit of a couple of weeks. In 1905 he had married Alberta Sturgis, daughter by her first marriage of Mrs. Frances Leggett. In 1912 George and Alberta had visited India, where they had met several of the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. George saw Sri Sarada Devi and touched her feet. Swami Premananda, upon meeting George, embraced him. Alberta died in 1949. Three years later George embarked on an ocean cruise which permitted him a stopover in Los Angeles.
George was immediately attracted by Amiya. Although fifty (George was then in his late 70's), she was pretty and animated. George proposed marriage and with the consent of her guru, Amiya accepted. Prabhavananda was distressed to lose her but concluded that marriage to George offered a graceful solution to Amiya's problem and was best for the Center. It was, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction — poor country girl, then Vedanta renunciate, then Countess. The British newspapers were full of the affair for several days.
Amiya had now arrived. She had attained position, money, and a title, far more than anyone in her situation could have hoped for. Yes, she apparently felt some twinges of remorse for having given up the commitment she had made in Hollywood and separating herself by thousands of kilometers from her guru. Amiya was adept at rationalizing as unselfish and beneficial to others the things she herself wanted to do. She said that God had called her to the responsible work of looking after George. So she set out to enjoy her life as a Countess. Of course there were many pleasant experiences, but also a great deal that was not so pleasant. George's heir and other children were not friendly, and George proved to be not easy as a husband. "Be careful what you wish for," Swami Prabhavananda had often warned, "for you might get it, together with the consequences."
Thus life went on. In 1962 George died, Amiya at his side, reminding him in his last moments to recall, to visualize, Sri Sarada Devi. After his death things were no better, as there was an extremely messy, well-publicized court case over the inheritance. Since there was and never had been any quality of calculation in Amiya's makeup — as I said, she was basically a thoughtless little girl — she defended herself badly and lost.
Amiya's great quality was her absolute reliance upon her guru. During the many years she had lived at the Hollywood ashrama a deep confidence had grown up between the disciple and Prabhavananda. She had always been wayward and thoughtless. Prabhavananda had scolded her innumerable times. On these occasions she had always repented and promised to reform. These new starts were short-lived. But her confidence in her guru never wavered. It was an illustration of the famous illustration of Sri Ramakrishna: "The mother spanks the child and the child clings to the mother's knees, weeping, 'Mother, Mother'."
Amiya kept up her relationship with her guru as best she could from such a distance, often talking about him, so that her British friends, worldly and otherwise, knew a great deal about Swami Prabhavananda and admired him sight unseen. She visited him in California as often as she could. But as had always been the case, she didn't do any serious meditation or other spiritual exercises, and lived an essentially frivolous life. For his part, the Swami held her as dear as always, his heedless daughter, sending her regularly strengthening letters and, among other instructions, bidding her undertake to write the life of Sri Sarada Devi from the standpoint of a western woman.
I should like to insert a historical footnote. I spent a few days with Amiya and George at Hinchingbrooke Castle in 1952. Amiya had found, perhaps in some effects of Alberta's, a few letters from Sister Nivedita written to Alberta. These Amiya later gave to me, and these I arranged to have published in the "Prabuddha Bharata". They are now included in the two-volume collection Letters of Sister Nivedita, edited by Sankari Prasad Basu. A far more interesting discovery was a photograph of Sister Nivedita and Sri Sarada Devi seated together. When Amiya presented it I didn't recall having seen that pose before, but had no idea that no one else had either. When I reached India a few weeks later I showed the photo to Swami Sankarananda, President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission. He was astounded, touched the photo to his head, and announced that this was an until then unknown portrait. Obviously taken at the same time as the "classic" poses arranged for by Nivedita and Sara Bull (November, 1898), this print had probably been Nivedita's alone; she had sent to, or left the one copy which existed, with her friend Alberta. All copies of this pose now in circulation are "descendants" of this one original retrieved by Amiya and carried in my luggage from Hinchingbrooke to Belur Math in October-November of 1952.
Since living in France I was able to visit Amiya several times. It was with her as though the intervening years had never been. Her thoughts were always there, at the Hollywood center, with Sister Lalita and Swami Prabhavananda. In 1985 she became seriously enfeebled and had to enter a nursing home — curiously enough in Bath not far from where she had been born. She took comfort from the fact that I was for her (as she was for me) a gurubai, and our relation grew very close. Her letters to me, and her conversation when we were together, were all of Home — yes, the old home on Ivar Hill, and the new Home to be, where her guru waited and to which she was ready and even eager to go.
Prabhavananda was fond of saying: "It works, my child. I tell you it really works." What works? Devotion to and absolute faith in the guru. In the unfolding of this curious and curiously comforting story, one finds proof that such is unquestionably the fact.
Amiya died on the morning of 14 February, 1986. The evening before she had had a long telephone conversation with a friend, during which she had again expressed her readiness to quit this world and "go home". At midnight when the nurse came in to give her her medicine, she had had a happy and animated conversation in the same vein. The same thing at five in the morning when she had taken some early morning tea. One hour later, never knowing what had happened, she suffered a sudden, brutal stroke and died instantly. In this last event of her eventful life, the guru, as he had been doing for such a long time, demonstrated once again his compassion for his often wayward, but always loving, daughter.
For some years I contributed a "department" called "Leaves from an Ashram" to the bimonthly revue of the Ramakrishna center in England, "Vedanta for East and West". Amiya's story, thinly disguised, inspired the following.
It had happened more than thirty years ago. I had then been new to the ashrama. It had been my first problem there as a resident. Another disiciple, X, far senior to me and older, had been behaving in a fashion that other members and I considered scandalous. How could that be? How could it be allowed to go on? Finally I had gone to the Head and complained, expecting the Head to take disciplinary action against the offender. Nothing of the sort! In fact, whatever disciplining had been meted out had been directed toward me myself, as the Head pronounced severely these words: "Never, never judge till you know the end of the story."
Now, more than a generation later, I recognize that the Head had been right. For recently the story of X had been completed. I'd seen how with the passing years that offending disciple had changed, sweetened, finally died a saint's death. I held in my hand a letter X had sent a few days before the end: "How stupid I was in those early days; I didn't realize it. But thank God our guru never condemned me, and because of his comprehension I somehow gained the courage to keep on. Well, it's almost finished now. I spend my days repeating my mantram, waiting with tranquillity to go Home." Casting my mind back to that ancient episode, I felt ashamed.
And equally "the end of the story" could mean the end of my own story. That too is what the Head must have meant. For I could see how I was not the same man who had complained against X long before. In these latter years my readiness to judge, to condemn, had quite gone out of me. I had come to see how little exterior signals actually mean. What one takes to be personality traits in others, aspects of their character, revealing actions — on which one bases one's evaluations--these may disguise more than they reveal. They are like camouflage or protective coloration obscuring the truth. "Do we ever," I had often asked myself in recent years, "do we ever have an inkling of what goes on inside other people? Who knows what fear, what sense of inadequacy, what hunger to be loved, what need for recognition form the visage with which people face the world? I was so sure of my own conscientiousness and yet so ready to discover its lack in another. I know now the end of my own story, or pratically so, and I now see clearly that judging others is something no one who is the least wise should ever dare to do."
There was another paragraph in X's letter: "As this may be the last time I shall be able to write to you, I wish to make a confessison. All those years ago when you first came to the ashrama some of us found the things you did shocking. I seriously considered complaining to the Head about you, but then I remembered that he was fond of saying, 'Never, never judge until you know the end of the story'. So I'm glad I didn't. As I have watched your development these three decades and seen what a devotee you have become, I know that such an early evaluation would have been hasty and wrong. I'm sorry I ever had such feelings."
I read these lines with burning cheeks.
I shall conclude this chapter and this book by speaking of Gurudas Maharaj, Swami Atulananda — a Hollander who became a swami of the Ramakrishna Order, and recognized by members of the Order as a holy man. He linked Europe and America with India at a period when this concourse was far less frequent than it is now. He took up Indian religious thought at a time when Hinduism was generally regarded by western people as heathenism, and through it reached a wonderful universality of view. In his last years, in his eighties and nineties, he allowed his daily thoughts and recollections to be noted down, and these made up a book which I had the joy of editing, entitled Atman Alone Abides. He said in one of his conversations printed in this volume: "If you put these small incidents together they will become a book."
Gurudas Maharaj interests us for at least three reasons. He knew intimately and received the grace of most of the first disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. Secondly, he occupies a particular place in the history of the early days of the Ramakrishna movement in the West. And, finally, he himself was a man of real spiritual attainment--a superior, convincing example and evidence of the faith.
I should like to take up these three factors one by one.
Gurudas Maharaj was born in Amsterdam on February 7, 1870, the son of a prosperous tea merchant. He was the seventh of eight children. His name was Cornelius J. Heijblom. The religious background of the family was Protestantism, strict and serious. The boy graduated from an agricultural college and before the turn of the century, as was so common in those days, emigrated to the United States. He lived in and around New York City, gaining his livelihood as office worker, and at times as coachman and farm hand.
In the nineteenth century Indian thought had penetrated American life to a very modest extent through the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and the New England Transcendentalists. It was only in 1893, with Swami Vivekananda's success at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago, that Hindu ideas became known to the public at large. Vivekananda's lecture tours in the United States and England during the following years resulted in a certain acceptance of Indian thought and the formation of several Vedanta study groups. To look after these groups, Vivekananda dispatched others of the first disciples of Sri Ramakrishna to the West: Swami Abhedananda, Swami Saradananda, and Swami Turiyananda. The fifth direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna to come to the West was Swami Trigunatitananda, who taught in the United States from 1903 until 1915.
Some twenty-five years after the events, Gurudas Maharaj wrote about his original contacts with these swamis in articles which became a book entitledWith the Swamis in America. He tells how in 1898 be became a student of Swami Abhedananda, how he met Swami Vivekananda briefly in 1899 and 1900, and how during that same year he went to California to live in the ashrama of Swami Turiyananda. In succeeding years in India, Gurudas Maharaj kept up his relation with Swami Turiyananda, also making the acquaintance of several of the other direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna: Swami Brahmananda, Swami Premananda, and Swami Shivananda. Indeeed, Gurudas Maharaj met all the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna except Swami Yogananda and Swami Niranjanananda. And, as we shall see, he knew Sri Sarada Devi, the Holy Mother.
As Gurudas Maharaj explained it, he had from the beginning found his own Protestantism confining and illogical. Thus when he heard the Vedantic teaching of Swami Abhedananda he was attracted. As he says, "It was as though a sudden revelation had opened up. I knew all at once that this was Truth." Instructed by Swami Abhedananda, he commenced regular religious practices. Being single, he was able to devote his spare time to helping out at Swami Abhedananda's small center. In due course, the Swami gave this young man the vows of brahmacharya, the first vows of a Hindu monk. He received the name-in-religion of Gurudas, which means "servant of the guru". The word Maharaj came to be added years later, a title of respect often applied in India to those who have renounced the world.
Although he was now a brahmachari, Gurudas Maharaj continued to earn his livelihood and live in his own quarters. But through Swami Turiyananda a brand of monastic life became possible. Swami Vivekananda had been given some uninhabited acreage in the San Antonio Valley, a day's hard travel by the transport of that period from San Francisco. Swami Turiyananda, although carrying on some public work at San Francisco, decided to put his major effort toward building up a center of study and meditation on this acreage, which he called the Shanti Ashrama, or peace retreat. In 1900, Brahmachari Gurudas was there.
The story of this pioneering effort has been told by Gurudas Maharaj in hisWith the Swamis in America; also by one of the original members, Ida Ansell (Ujjvala) in a vivid account originally published in the revue "Vedanta and the West" in 1952. In recent years this sojourn of Americans in the desert with their Indian teacher has been recounted by Swami Ritajananda in a book entitledThe Life of Swami Turiyananda. It was a bold experiment to take a dozen Americans into the California wilderness. The climate and geographical factors were not very favorable: the epoch of the Wild West was not very many years in the past. Facilities had to be built up from scratch. The most elementary concepts of Hindu thought had to be imparted to these pioneers. What Swami Turiyananda was apparently aiming for was the establishment of the forest hermitage existence of ancient Hindustan, where people lived in a simple way, worked as capable of working to sustain the community, devoting themselves to study and to personal advancement. Shanti Ashrama bore some resemblance to the so-called Utopian communities such as the Mennonites, whose inception had been a part of the American scene from the earliest days, even to the so-called hippie communes of the recent past. A similar colony, called the Lord's Farm, existed for a time on the east coast of te United States, of which Gurudas Maharaj had been a member briefly before going to the Shanti Ashrama. The feature that marked Shanti Ashrama was the presence, as director, of an advanced spiritual leader, Swami Turiyananda, and when he went back to India, as he did in 1902, Shanti Ashrama was no longer a retreat for continuous living.
Gurudas Maharaj was at Shanti Ashrama from the beginning and continued to live there even after its brief golden hour was finished. He was the right-hand man of Swami Turiyananda, and Swami Turiyananda's friend. One of the most valuable features of Atman Alone Abides is the portrait and interpretation Gurudas Maharaj gave concerning Swami Turiyananda.
Although Gurudas Maharaj wanted to be a monk and, technically, was a monk, there were in the early days of this century no Ramakrishna monasteries in the West. Today there are several. So in 1906 he went to live in India, to take up his place in the Order inspired by Sri Ramakrishna in 1886 and founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1897. When I met Gurudas Maharaj for the first time in Kankhal in 1953 (I had a second meeting with him at the same place ten years later) we talked — somewhat as two expatriots might when finding themselves far from home — about the problems the westerner encounters in trying to live in India. This is a difficult transition to make today; and it was much more so in 1906. Gurudas Maharaj found the manners strange, the food not at all good for him, conveniences he would consider fundamental simply nonextistent. He could not stand India physically and at the end of two years was forced to return to the United States. But, as he told me in his characteristically amused manner, "the call of the orient" again became strong; and in 1911 he tried the transfer again, again at the end of five years with the same result.
Finally, in 1922, Gurudas Maharaj made the third effort, and this time he stayed, until his death on August 10, 1966. By the time of this third try he had learned prudence. As he explained it to me, he finally decided not to try to be the complete Indian. Some modest financial aid from a brother in London allowed him to provide for himself enough comfort and sufficient food of the sort suitable for him so as to be able to maintain his health even in India. He chose to live in the north, in winter at a big center at Kankhal, 22 kilometres down from Rishikesh, and at a mountain station in Barlowganj, near Mussourie, in summer.
I asked Gurudas Maharaj in 1953: "Do you think you made the right choice in 1922? Do you ever feel homesick for the West?" He replied: "Even if I had had regrets about never seeing the West again, I could have none now at eighty-three. It is nice to be elderly in India. In the good old U.S.A. you're not wanted when you are aged. But here elderly people are respected. Look at the way they love and spoil me! In India old age is really an advantage."
Perhaps this is a good place to describe Gurudas Maharaj. He had the white skin and blue eyes of a Hollander — very striking in a country where dark eyes and dark skin are the norm. What was visible of his hair — for he kept his head shaved as most sadhus do — was reddish. He was small, and it seemed a wonder that he was able in his youth to have worked as a coachman and farm aid. A fall from a horse had given him a permanently injured back. When I saw him in 1953 he walked with a cane. Years before in the U.S.A. he had been fitted with a leather corsette for his back, and in 1953 he was still making it do. He told me: "Now it is a race. My corsette is awfully old. It's become a question of which will hold out longer. Will I give out before the corsette does, or will it give out before I do?"
During his first two sojourns in India Gurudas Maharaj had had the good fortune to associate with several direct disciples — that is to say, men of realization — of Sri Ramakrishna, as well as other persons of spiritual and historical eminence. Although he had taken brahmacharya from Swami Abhedananda years before in the United States, Gurudas Maharaj realized that he had never been given a diksha mantram. It was arranged for him to receive this initiation from Sri Sarada Devi during his second sojourn in India. On his first visit Gurudas Majaraj traveled through Kashmir and up to the famous Amarnath shrine in the company of Swami Turiyananda, Swami Premananda, and Swami Shivananda. In 1907 he attended the surya-grahna mala at Kurukshetra in the company of Swami Turiyananda. Some of the time during the first stay in India he lived at Swami Vivekananda's Himalayan monastery at Mayavati; there exists a historic photograph of him taken there, probably in 1907, together with Sister Nivedita, Sister Christine, Mrs. Charlotte Sevier, Mrs.Sara Bull, and Swami Virajananda, all disiples of Swami Vivekananda, and all important figures in the early history of the Ramakrishna movement.
In 1923 Gurudas Maharaj was given his final vows, of sannyas, and became Swami Atulananda. This occurred at Belur Math, in the presence of many swamis, including Swami Abhedananda. It is the President of the Order who administers these vows. Swami Shivananda was then the President. But when it came Gurudas Maharaj's turn, Swami Shivananda stepped aside in favor of Swami Abhedananda, requesting him, who had initiated Gurudas Maharaj into religious life twenty-five years before in New York, to confirm him in the austere engagements of sannyas.
As the years went by, other historical figures died, and Gurudas Maharaj himself became a celebrity. Indians, both monastic and lay, planned for years to go on a pilgrimage to the Himalayan foothills, in order to see him. And devotees from the West, hearing of him and feeling for him a kind of patriotic pride, as was my case, made a point to journey up to Kankhal when visiting India. One American, who visited Gurudas Maharaj in 1966 and recorded his impressions, was Swami Yogeshananda. Following are excerpts from his account:
It was in the summer of 1966 that I made my way to Barlowganj to make a pilgrimage visit to Swami Atulananda
. . . .By this time the cancer on his face was far advanced, he had become very silent, and one could understand it would not be long before he would take his leave. I stayed in the room sometimes when his wound was being dressed [he had a cancer on the forehead which eventually affected one eye], and saw the difficulties with which he contended in the daily routine of living, and the only thing which made it bearable for me as witness was the distinct feeling that he was himself the witness, patient, enduring, detached. Truly his forbearance seemed marvelous. He said that he was not in much pain; this was difficult to believe from the nature of the case.
Often I had just to sit in his presence, because it was rare at that time that he would speak more than a few sentences. Nevertheless, I will give here what little conversations I had with him, in substance.
Gurudas Maharaj told me that he had never tried to go through a summer in Bengal. He had arrived at Belur Math in June, and Maharaj (Swami Brahmananda) had told him it would be too hot for him, so he should go to Mayavati. When I said that I was having difficulties even now, in these more convenient days, he said, "Oh, baba!" and laughed heartily. Then he added, "And I wore western clothes!" (in which certain functions of the day become complicated.) More laughter. He first adopted Indian dress at Almora. When he went to Mayavati, Mrs. Sevier was there. He charcterized her for me in four words: short, active, intelligent, kindly. He remembered his talk with the famous missionary Dr. E. Stanley Jones, which the latter reported in his book Christ at the Round Table, and he spoke of him as a great preacher. He remembered Ujjvala, and remarked that she had got along very well for one with a physical handicap.
In answer to questions, he said that the Holy Mother had talked to him through an interpreting brahmachari, that he had seen Sister Nivedita in Calcutta and in New York, and had also seen Sister Christine.
He asked about the view from my room (the southernmost, which looked out over the valley below and down to Dehra Dun). I expressed my appreciation of it. Kankhal, he said, had no such view.
"Now comes a very important question," he said with gravity, but also with a twinkle in his eyes. "Which is better, the American doughnut, or the Scottish one such as this lady made for me?" (A devotee had brought some she had made.) Everyone laughed at this. Then I told him several funny incidents about Swami Madhavananda which he enjoyed.
I asked Gurudas Maharaj if one can meditate as well sitting in a chair as in lotus position. "Yes, theoretically," was his answer. To the question whether he had ever been able to sit in a full lotus posture, he nodded his head; but I did not feel sure that he had understood the question. A certain gentleman who was staying at the guesthouse nearby and visiting the Swami told me that when he had come to him in 1953 for darshan and some instruction, the Swami had given him the book The Way of the Pilgrim and told him to read it.
"Have you come to appreciate Indian music after this long time, Maharaj?" I queried one day. "Yes," said the Swami, "but not the voice." His attendant explained, "Instrumental music only."
I made him an apple pie of sorts, using the materials available there, and had the privilege of feeding him a few spoonfuls myself. I asked him about the direct disciples of the Master, and he said he had seen all of them except Swami Niranjanananda and Swami Yogananda.
The first day I was there at the ashrama he asked, while sitting up in the morning, where I was. The attendant replied that I was sitting in my room. "But he did not come here to sit in his room," Gurudas Maharaj remarked. Thereafter I felt emboldened to spend more time with him.
His attendant told him that I could speak a little Bengali. "Very little, Maharaj," I demurred. His eyes twinkled as so often they did. "Just enough," he commented, "to put me to shame." All laughed. Then the attendant reminded him that he used to speak a little Hindi. Last year, he said, when a certain visitor had come, the Swami had spoken to him in Hindi. His answer was, "Last year has gone: so has the Hindi."
The fact that he was regarded as a celebrity was a source of amusement to Gurudas Maharaj. He had become a spectataor of the passing show — or as he called it, this dream that we are all dreaming — and observed the character he himself was required to play with a mild mocking detachment. He took neither the world seriously nor himself. This characteristic humor and frankness come through in the conversations which make up Atman Alone Abides. Indeed I as editor found it necessary to soft-pedal certain remarks, and the publisher considered it necessary to add numerous "explanatory" footnotes. At times this quality might appear to the ordinary observer to be somewhat "putting-off"; there seemed to be something ironic in Gurudas Maharaj's tone. He himself says he was inclined to be critical. Well, he was a realist in the Vedantic sense, and this attitude occasionally made him appear to be a harsh iconoclast.
When Ujjvala died she left, as I have related, many mementoes. Among these was a collection of letters which Gurudas had written to her for forty or fifty years, most of them from India. I kept these safely after Ujjvala's death, hoping to look through them when I had the leisure and maybe publish excerpts. But it did not seem right that I should remove them from the Southern California center when I moved to France. I was thus pleased to hear that the collection was confided to one of the nuns at Santa Barbara, who typed copies of them all — not an easy task, as the writing was minute to begin with, and faded. That personality I have described above, and which is visible throughout Atman Alone Abides comes out forcefully in the letters, many of which have been published in With the Swamis in America and India. I cannot resist quoting portions from several. I begin with one dated September 5, 1925 — about the time of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial.
I used to be somewhat annoyed at Sri Ramakrishna's attitude and replies to questions. His "I don't know." "Mother knows." "Mother can do anything." I see the wonderful wisdom of it now. Who knows anything in this mass of mystery? Certain things may have happened for a million years, and we call it a law of nature. But what is a million years with God? It is less than a second. If the human mind should change ever so little a new universe with different laws would reveal itself. I used to fight tooth and nail the idea that anything could happen not in accordance with established natural law. The old story [in Ramakrishna's life] of the white flower on a bush of red species of flower. Today I believe all things possible. I believe in miracles. As Swami Saradananda once told me, we don't know the subtler laws of nature. The bhakta comes in contact with these subtler laws. Hence they appear as mysterious miracles to others. All Ramakrishna's experiences are opposed to the science of today. Science says, "Impossible" and rejects. "Mother, you know everything; you can do everything. I want to love you and be your child." This to me seems to be wisdom. And let the scientists fight, and let the fundamentalists fight; good for them. We have all been fighters. Now let us have a little peace. Now let us retire from the arena and become onlookers and enjoy it.
If only we could look upon all life as fun instead of taking things so seriously. "Meet life merrily," says Nivedita, "and know that it is all Mother's play." There is the secret! Mother laughs because she is not attached. We weep because we are attached. She involves herself and evolves again. And she thinks it is great fun. We involve and entangle ourselves and then we weep and moan and indulge in self-pity during the process of evolving and disentangling. "Know the Atman and be free." And then play at anything you like. That is what life should be. And then all life becomes beautiful. It is only a question of angle of vision. With the right vision there is no evil, no ugliness, no sadness. It is all part of a wonderful drama or dream. How different everything looks when we stand apart as witness.
. . .All these words mean the same in the Shanti state. I have gone beyond that. But I never wanted Truth for truth's sake but because it brings happiness. I know that true happiness consists in knowing myself, my Atman. I do not find happiness in the world. Therefore I try to realize the Atman. And the Jnana path appeals to me because that leads to Self-knowledge, and seems more reasonable to me.
By the way, do you know that Christian saints warn against the sensuous in religion? But we have to pass through it. It is only when we realize our Atman that we rise above sensuousness. Then it is pure bliss. That is super or beyond ordinary sensuousness, just as knowing the Self is super or beyond selfishness. It is an absolute state where ordinary feelings cease. So worldly beauty is one thing, spiritual beauty another. And I do not confound the two. But in the end it is all beauty. Turiyananda was appreciative of beauty. I saw that on our pilgrimages. He loved beautiful scenery. Still he told me then to my surprise, "I don't care for external beauty. I want the internal beauty." I understand it now, but did not then. He loved external beauty but it did not suffice. He found another and greater beauty of the spiritual realm. I love beauty but it is just a fleeting sensation. Spiritual beauty (that comes with spiritual realization) has a lasting effect. It changes the person for the better, while external beauty has not that effect on me. It leaves me as I am now.
Here is the Swami speaking in another voice, on 13 October of that same year:
Personally I prefer Mother's calmer aspects. I love our little river way down the valley, and miles and miles of hills, tier after tier, ending in snow-capped mountains, and the rosy clouds drifting along below my verandah, and giant eagles floating on their wings; circling in the air they look like tiny dark spots against the heavens. And the bird singing in the pines, and the monkeys stealing our apples, and cowherds playing their flutes, and the villagers working their little fields — all this is a joy to me that I can enjoy from my room window or verandah. Then, no noise, no confusion, everyone quietly going about his business, each one of us in our own way, without criticizing or interfering with the others. Still all are friendly. This is my life here. And I only wish you could enjoy it with me. But who knows? Perhaps you would find it dull, inane, a stupid life. You might see only laziness, dirt, inefficiency, and other evils of India.
I love nature, insect life, animal life, flowers, the peasants . I can understand St. Francis of Assisi singing in the hills, talking to the birds, the wolf and the flowers. Glorious St. Francis! And his sweet, pure, clean relationship with St. Clare, who mothered him, loved him, understood him.
It is a question of temperament. I like the outdoor life, open country, a few friends. So I did not get much at your Pentacostal meetings, crowded with converted and half-converted, and temporarily converted drunkards and gamblers and brothel keepers. I have just read the life of Mrs. White, Seventh Day Adventist. Marvelous in a way, living in visions and doing the Lord's work. But it gave me the creeps. Sickly from her childhood, all her life, still marrying and bringing weaklings into the world, having to leave her children in the care of others [in order to go out] to do the Lord's work. My nature revolts against it. Compare that with the pure, clean life of the Swamis, though they don't have visions and go into trances. And what did she get in her samadhis? That Sabbath must be kept on Saturday, that the world would soon come to an end, that she must convert people. I prefer the old Catholic saints who did not have a brood of children. Who cares for speaking in tongues when one can read the Gita, Upanishads, Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, Swamiji's works. Certainly we are fortunate. Think of the Crest Jewel of Wisdom and then turn to Pentacostal literature. You fall from the mountain peak into the gutter. I know you don't approve of my aristocratic taste, but as Vedantists we have a right to be fastidious. There is no sense in cultivating bad taste.
You understand, I don't condemn the Pentacostals. They are doing a wonderful work that I could not do. But we belong to another constellation; we have another sun to illumine us. Our orbit is free from smut. It is always toward greater purity
. . . .Is it accident that brought me to India for the third time? No! I could not be satisfied with anything but the very best. I could not swallow molasses after having tasted nectar.
Here is Gurudas Maharaj again writing Ujjvala, the 29 March,1928:
Life is a mystery; we are not sure of anything, cannot predict anything, are usually wrong in our judgment of others, cannot believe anything — not even our senses — cannot disbelieve anything. Maya indeed! But there is a way out, a path leading beyond Maya. This is our consolation. I seem to be looking at life in a more impersonal way. The faults of others do not distress me at all.
Mother India [a sensational book of the 1920's criticizing India] was simply an interesting phenomenon, a curious working of the human mind. Nivedita went to the other extreme — just as interesting. Some of our swamis are saintly, others have to be driven from the Mission. All equally interesting, all are studies, all Mother's play. No one to praise, no one to blame — all Mother's children. A right step, a false step — all part of the play. That is why it always amuses me when you hide things, when you want to protect people's reputations
. . . .I neither believe nor disbelieve. I see and hear, and then it is gone. Let others form opinions, judge, criticize. To me, life is a moving picture. See it and forget it. Don't close your eyes, don't take sides. What I want now is to be able to include myself in the picture, to be the mere witness to myself also — in pain, in pleasure, in health and sickness, in good deeds and bad deeds. Look on, stand aside, see what this funny creature Gurudasa is doing. And know that I am not this: that I am free, the Atman — that all are free, the Atman.
What we see are the actors on the stage — today beggar, tomorrow king, today sinner, tomorrow saint. It is always the same person playing different parts. So it is difficult to shock me or make me feel different toward persons even if they make a mistake.
Take M. I am now convinced that he plays the part of an irresponsible creature. So I protect myself. But my feeling towards him is not changed. I will receive him if he comes just as before. It is an interesting study of human behavior. What more? What less? If you ask me, can you trust him? I don't try to hide or to protect him from you. I say, be careful. He may fool you. But that does not mean that I wish him ill or that I am not ready to stand by him. Only I know that if I or you lend him money, there is a good chance of never seeing your money again. But if I can spare it, I may give it to him. Why not? Let him have his fun, get his experience. Mother's child, Mother's play.
And I am glad to meet all characters, just as I am glad to read about them. I am as interested in Dempsey [Jack Dempsey, prizefighter] and Barnum [circus-master] etc. as in the saints. I would be just as much interested to meet them, or to see them in action. Books for India, books against India — they are equally interesting to me, if they are written equally well.
Let the play go on. Turiyananda once told me that when he read that when Krishna made the designs for his capital he designed one part of the city for prostitutes to live. Swami was horrified. Why did he allow prostitutes in his ideal city? Then, later he understood. They also have a right to live — they fill their place in the picture, they do their share in the play. Without them the play would not be complete. Let each choose his own part; let him play it well. And when he wants to change his part — all right — others may take it. Each part brings its own results, its own pay.
No swami claims to be perfect. Many will say, "It is only through Mother's grace that I am not worse than I am." This is wisdom, knowledge of life. But only old, tried, experienced souls know this. Why do people feel attracted to a rascal and run away from a saint? Because a rascal is true; an all-saint is a myth. If he is held up as an all-saint by his so-called friends and protectors, we know we are being humbugged. It is namby-pamby silliness. Swamiji did not care a snap whether a person was good or bad, but he hated hiding — covering sores with flowers. And you know how Turiyananda used to wrinkle up his nose at "good" people. Jesus said: "Why callest me good? No one is good, but my Father who is in Heaven."
On his sixty-first birthday, 7 February, 1931, Gurudas Maharaj wrote to Ujjvala:
I remember once I saw or experienced, or what you may call it, realized beyond a doubt, that we are all Atman, souls, and our earthly individualities are only like reflections of the souls. And with it came the knowledge that this life is unreal, and what fools we are to take it seriously, to hate and be jealous and quarrel, and all that. I saw it as absolute lunacy, for in reality we are all equal, Spirit, blissful, beyond love and hatred, all equally free, perfect, beyond all desires. Think of what a heaven life would be for me if I could have retained that consciousness. There would have been only love, love for all and for everything, for all life is only a reflection of our ignorant mind. No good, no bad, life only a shadow play to enjoy if we realize it as such. I am the soul, immortal; life, my own shadow on this world of Maya. This is Truth, for I have experienced it also in other forms. And this is really my religion, the one thing in religion of which I am certain. I have known moments that you might have cut my body to pieces and I would have laughed while it was going on. I would have been the witness, detached from the body, enjoying the fun. And now, when I have a toothache or a headache I am undone. This world has become real again. Still, I know that this world-reality is relative, while the spirit-reality is absolute. Religion means only the attempt to attain the spirit-consciousness, and to retain it. All else in religion is 90 per cent bunk, or as Swamiji says, "lower truth".
From a historical standpoint Gurudas Maharaj is significant as the first occidental sannyasin of the Ramakrishna Order. This is not quite accurate. In 1895 Swami Vivekananda initiated two American men and one American woman into sannyas, but the men did not maintain their engagement, and the woman did not continue in rapport with the Ramakrishna Order. But Gurudas Maharaj was faithful from 1898 onwards, even though for long periods he was forced to live outside Vedanta institutions. With the development of an extensive monastic program among Ramakrishna centers in the West, Gurudas Maharaj assumes the character of forerunner and patron. He was Our First Success, and thus is seen as hero and admired as example. At the present time it is relatively easy for a European or American to ally himself with the Ramakrishna movement and advance in it, either at home or in India — there are at least a half-dozen western centers sponsoring monastic programs, which have up to now produced around a score of sannyasins; but for Gurudas Maharaj it was a case of hardship and fidelity.
Now that there is a large Vedanta following in Holland and a Ramakrishna center there, Gurudas Maharaj becomes a hero in another sort of way. National pride cherishes the idea that this modern western holy man was born in that country.
But of course the most interesting thing about Gurudas Maharaj is that he was a knower of God. That this is a fact can be established in two ways: on the basis of internal evidence, and on the basis of external evidence.
The internal evidence is frequently encountered in Atman Alone Abides. One can look, for example, at the entry of March 15, 1958. Gurudas Maharaj says that he experienced, as he describes it, a perception of the Atman as pervading all. He sensed the Truth and felt himself to be essentially one with that Truth, entirely distinct from the world of dreams. To his old friend Ujjvala he spoke even nore clearly, in his letters, as we have seen.
The external evidence resides in the regard which other members of the Order had for him. Anyone living in a religious community for decades is bound to be thoroughly known by its other members for what he is. If Gurudas Maharaj was considered to be highly advanced by his colleagues, we may be sure that he was so. In 1963 I was discussing Gurudas Maharaj with Swami Vireswarananda, then the General Secretary of the Ramakrishna Order. He later became President, in which post he remained until his death in 1985. We were talking of Swami Vivekananda's dream that eastern monastics should go to teach in the West and that western monastics should go to live in India, there to do practical work for the Order and nation. That the first part of the proposition had been carried out there could be bo doubt. But not the second part. I remarked to Swami Vireswarananda that it seemed to me that Gurudas Maharaj in his many years in India had not accomplished much beyond the writing of one small book and a few articles. (In those days I thought practical work to mean active endeavor such as publishing, teaching, doctoring, construction, and the like. I didn't think of self-development and inspiration of others as work!) To which Swami Vireswarananda responded, with a touch of heat: "But Gurudas Maharaj became spiritual."
As I said in the introduction written for Atman Alone Abides, "Here the reader is allowed to observe the thinking processes of a jnani. Jnana is an austere way; it has not much truck with the vanities, the whimsicalities, of everyday life. One may be put off in places, by what seems like cynicism, even hilarity, as regards the concerns of men. But this would be the likely result if one had known the Atman and seen the world of appearance, with its sweet and sour, its lighting both clear and obscure, its good and bad, to be perfectly unreal. Atman alone abides; all the rest is too ephemeral to be taken seriously.