Swami Vidyatmananda: The Making of a Devotee
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Reply of Swami Vidyatmananda

on the occasion of his birthday celebration July 29, 1988
at the Gretz ashrama

Dear Friends,

This is the twenty-third time that my anniversaire has been celebrated at Gretz. But this is the first time that I have consented to respond to the best wishes of our friends by giving a little speech. On all those previous occasions I found myself too shy or too embarrassed to respond. What could I say before such an undeserved outpouring of affection? I sensed deeply the sweetness of your gestures in signing my birthday card and coming to my birthday dinner—but some feeling of humility or reserve forbad me to express my emotion openly.

But today, after nearly a quarter of a century of silence, I have decided to do things differently. I intend to give a public response to all these marvelous gestures of friendship which fête me today and have supported me all these years. If I don't do it now, when shall I ever be able to? You all know how old I am today. Most of my childhood friends are already dead, dying of gaga. Statistically speaking, I must be classified as a survivor of highly uncertain duration.

If I had undertaken a career, say, in the army, instead of the one I chose, I would have been retired twenty years ago. If I had worked as a businessman I could have taken my retreat a good ten years ago. Even those antiques pf the Church, the bishops, the archbishops, and the cardinals, are forced to retire at the age I have reached today. But not me! First time in my life I ever thought it might be a good idea to have been a Roman Catholic!

For it seems that the answer to the question of when one as a swami is going to retire is: When on closes one's eyes for the last time or can no longer get out of bed. Voilà our system of Sécurité Social in the Ramakrishna Order! If you are tired of me—and I can certainly understand it if you should be—please pray to the Lord that I may be relieved of my job. I have a book or two partly written which I should very much like the time to complete.

You remember the last word of the dying priest in that splendid book by Bernanos "Le Journal d'un Curé de Campagne". Defeated, unemployed, fatally sick, he expires with these words: "Grace, grace; it is all grace". This too is what I have found; it is all grace. Grace to have been born of Parents who taught me honesty and responsibility. Grace that they should have gifted me with a healthy body. Grace that I acquired a good education and enjoyed the friendship over the years of interesting an inspiring people. Grace also—as Swami Vivekananda says in one of his letters—that I made big mistakes. Grace that I found a guru who was a disciple of a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and who took the pains to try to make something worthwhile out of me. A supreme grace that I could enter into the condition of life which I consider the most ideal of all conditions, that of the sannyasin. Grace that I could work this last quarter century under ideal condition s and with helpful associates under the protection of an ideal leader. Grace, grace; it is all grace.

I know I am not an easy person, but on the other hand, the role chosen for me has not always been easy either. But whatever my faults, I do not believe they are a result of any excessive desire on my part for dominance or for self-aggrandizement. And I thank God that I have never been desirous of assuming the role of religious teacher. One final grace is that I never felt the itch to be a guru.

Indeed, one thing that has disquieted me over the years has been the considerable posturing which goes on in the name of religion. What we may call exotic pretensions coming from the East, with all those beard and robes! My position concerning religion has since the beginning been wholly pragmatic; I was never interested in Hinduizing myself or learning much of Indian arts and sciences.

What does Ramakrishna-Vedanta mean to a thoroughly western person; what can it do for him as a plain American or European in need of spiritual awakening—that is what I wanted to test out. For if the revelation of Sri Ramakrishna is going to prevail as a world-wide force it cannot succeed as a foreign transplant; it will have to adapt itself to indigenous people in indigenous situations. All the books and articles I have written and the sermons I have preached have focused on this one goal, of finding a way for westerners to join the devotee cast of Ramakrishna while at the same time feeling comfortable as themselves in their own natural milieu.

If I can summarize the other objectives for which I have striven during my years of service at the Centre Védantique, I’d list not one but two spiritual exemplars, and each totally different the one from the other. Most aspirants have their hand full in trying to accommodate themselves to one, I have had two. That of course is why I have become so perfect! In the 1950’s and the early 1960’s it was Swami Prabhavananda—a proponent of the directive school of disciplining, who was my teacher. He presided over us with a watchful eye and told us in vigorous terms what to do and what not to do. He had many successes and some rebellious failures also. My second exemplar—and you all know to whom I refer—was just the opposite—an advocate of the nondirective approach. Give a good example, and let the student work out his own salvation, guided bien sûr, by the Lord. That method works and sometimes does not work also. As a product of both of these techniques, I believe I am able to evaluate the merits of each. I must conclude that I prefer the latter, although it has to be said that many students seem to prefer the more directive relationship in which the guru is seen as all-knowing and all-prevailing. For the immature, perhaps yes. But for the mature, the nondirective approach seems preferable. The saving formula, often enunciated by Swami Ritajananda, works like this: "Yes, he is doing wrong, but his wrongdoing will make him suffer, and that will wake him up and make him change." (If we and he can live long enough!)

Among the many centers of the Ramakrishna movement, Gretz is well known and highly admired. Many see the ashram of Gretz as a model for the organization of other centers in the West. Last summer I spoke at the Vedanta Convention in Chicago on this topic and roused quite a lot of excitement. Vedanta societies organized as churches are no longer attracting adherents; the ashrama model is coming to the fore as a more effective agency for giving aspirants experience in religious living. As a lieu separate from the confusion of today’s world, where people can go to learn sane techniques of living and habits of devotion, the ashrama offers an alternative precious to men and women of today. Already other centers are beginning to emulate us, and we may see the organization of Vedanta in the West revolutionized according to the Gretz model in the years to come. I want to emphasize my own commitment to this type of organization, although I must say that running an ashrama is the hardest work I know; and living in an ashrama demands greater than normal sacrifices of time and privacy. Not only you who live here but you who come here regularly to help in so many ways and thus make the functioning of Gretz possible, know this; but you must know also how much such sacrifices mean to those who benefit from such efforts. You are doing more for your fellow man than you know. This is an actual putting into effect of the devise of the Ramakrishna Mission: "For my own liberation and for the good of the world."

I believe that this is all I wish to say today except to express my thanks for your presence here and all the evidences of affection which you have offered today and over the years. My prayer today is that the Lord will grant every one of you a life as happy and productive as he has granted me.