Swami Vidyatmananda: The Making of a Devotee
6b.jpg, 13kB

Chapter One

The Devotee as Historical Incident


Psychologists like Carl Jung give great importance to dreams as an aid to therapy. He saw dreams as a means of tapping the contents of the unconscious and receiving useful indications from this body of wisdom generally mute. Such indications, properly interpreted, may help an individual understand the cause of his problems and show him how to combat it. In his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections Jung cites numerous examples of this process drawn from his own experience.

Aside from psychiatric practice, it seems clear that everyone engages in this process to some extent. A dream of flying will perhaps alert an individual of a suppressed longing to be free from daily cares. Finding himself in strange places may give a hint that a respite from everyday routines is in order. Dreams in which an individual finds himself caught in frustrating situations will encourage him to seek in his waking hours a more healthy pattern of life. Most of these dreams would seem merely to project a picture — reconstituted — of the concerns of the waking day.

Such dreams come and go, generally leaving little lasting impression. But very occasionally a dream will make its appearance which proclaims itself more of a vision than a mere dream. Such dreams are extremely vivid and continue to leave a lasting impression.

Somewhere about 1940, enthusiastically committed to a worldly life, but feeling guilty about it, I had such a dream. It was self-certifying as being more than a dream; it seemed to proclaim that it carried a serious message meant especially for me. I took it as a kind of prophesy; and have recollected it in all its details all these fifty years, as I do today.

I was in a room something like a chapel. Seated before me on a stone platform was an angel. Dressed in blue, yes, and with wings! The angel was holding a small closed casque. I sensed that this somehow pertained to me. "Please tell me, what is in the casque," I enquired. The angel smiled and replied, "You will know when you get to heaven." That was all. Rising, casque in hand, the angel disappeared through a door at the back of the room. I waited there, disappointed and yet happy and relieved.

For now I knew, by implication, that, far from God as I was at that moment, I should eventually modify my life — be witness to a change of heart — and achieve "salvation". Not if you get to heaven, as I had feared, but when you get to heaven.

This vision has sustained me all these years. I claim the promise that I shall see the angel again. That winged being must be there to greet me on my departure from this life and keep his promise. What the casque when opened will reveal I do not know, but the fact that it shall be opened in heaven's unblinking light has given me cause to carry on with confidence all these years.


I was born in 1913. (I can still remember, when five years old, the sound of factory whistles saluting the end of World War I.) On that hot day of July 29, 1913, my mother had gone to a morning Chautauqua entertainment held in a circus tent in the city park of Lansing, Michigan. They say that, being a large woman, Mother hardly showed that she was pregnant, and anyway her term still had time to go. But during the performance she began to experience labor pains. Alarmed, she started to walk home — a good couple of miles. When proceeding on foot became impossible she flagged down a man driving a horse and wagon, who brought her home. I was born that evening at 23h.45, a month prematurely. I am told my body was somewhat unfinished; the nails were not fully formed; eyebrows had yet to appear, and there were one or two other imperfections.

My father was a dentist. and our life was comfortable. We lived in a big house set on an acre of land, just beyond the city limits. We always had good food, adequate clothing. We spent Christmastime at my grandmother's house in southwestern Michigan with my aunts and uncles and cousins; and we passed the summer at a cottage at Cedarvillle in Michigan's Upper Peninsula near where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan join at the Straits of Mackinaw.

My parents were religiously strict, but possibly no stricter than many at that epoch. Both were what we would call today born-again Christians. They tried to inculcate in my sister Elizabeth, five years my junior, and in me the traditional Protestant virtues.

Father was what we might think of as a typical New Englander. His character resembled that of his own father, who as a young doctor had come to the Midwest from Vermont. Father's apparent coldness concealed what I later was to understand was an ardent nature. He rarely expressed his feelings, but people respected him as, though not easy to know, a good man. He was fond of the outdoors. He liked to hunt, camp, go on boat trips. Needless to say, I was a disappointment to him; I preferred books. I agreed once to go with him to northern Michigan on a deer hunting expedition. Slogging around in the woods, gun at the ready, in the hope of spotting a deer; feet wetted by the slushy snow, tripping over fallen limbs, sleeping in a tent heated by a smoky fire — such hearty delights were not for me. Father was strongly individualist. For example, he used to read the daily newspaper perched on a bicycle going to and from his office. He was very much interested in what was called the British-Israel thought — prophecies based on symbols said to be found in the Great Pyramid. Like many sons before me, I wish, now that it is too late, that I had been mature enough to appreciate my father's qualities and to have developed a friendship with him.

Mother was a worrisome woman and often sickly. She said frequently that she should never have married, "although of course if I hadn't married I wouldn't have had you, dear." She didn't really like my father, complained against him to us children, and spoke, up to her last days, of having "disobeyed the Lord" in having married instead of having become a Christian missionary to India. Elizabeth identified with my father, whom she saw as misunderstood, and I identified with my mother, who seemed to me to be the partner who deserved understanding.

My father and mother were conscientious parents; it is probably due to their efforts to rear us in a wholesome fashion that I owe the good health I have enjoyed all my life. Yet I was an alien child in our family. I never felt very comfortable with my parents, and I am sure that they were correspondingly ill at ease with me. Somewhere around the age of ten or twelve a first metaphysical challenge rose in my mind when, furious at some scolding my father administered, I sought to punish him: "You are to blame. You brought me into the world. I didn't ask to be born." I can still recall the injured look on his face. Much later I was ashamed of this outcry when I learned that the possession of a human body is one of the greatest to be desired of blessings. I have often asked myself what karmic predisposition caused me to be born into the union of Elizabeth Emma Richards and Edwin Laurence Yale, and what karmic deserts on their part ordained that they should be "blessed" with such an unsatisfactory son.

I was a conscientious boy, never very boisterous. A desire to excel was strong in me from the beginning, so that I became a model student. Never much for sports except swimming, as soon as I reached high school I threw my energy into such extracurricular activities as essay contests, poetry reading competitions, and dramatics.

What I would call the first awakening happened like this, when I was seventeen. On the bulletin board of Eastern High School there appeared an announcement stating that the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay would read her poetry in our auditorium on a certain evening. I admired Shelley, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, but Millay was my ideal. The evening is clear in my memory. (I have the torn-off half of the admission ticket still.)

The stage, which I knew so well from having acted in plays there, had been turned into a drawing room, with a sofa, an easy chair or two, and a table, on which the Millay volumes of poetry were placed, the whole made glamorous in my eyes by the presence of a handsome arrangement of fresh flowers. The audience was not large but that was all the better; she was there mostly, I felt, for me.

When she came in, a live poet, who looked like a poet, I knew I was about to take some evolutionary step, or join some host of special people, or accede to some initiation. In 1930 Edna St. Vincent Millay would have been a little under forty. She was slender, had a boyish face, had red-gold hair worn in what we later were to call a page-boy style. She wore a long dress, gold in color, with reddish designs, draped in a sort of medieval fashion. But I saw this not as an evening gown but as the sacred vestment of a priestess. Something far beyond anything I had ever felt or seen was present in our dull Midwestern city that night. A light was about to go on inside me.

She picked up one of the volumes, but without really reading from it began to recite the poems it contained in a voice profound and sweet. I had read most of the poems she recited, and some of them I even knew by heart. I entered into a state of exaltation that I hadn't known existed. I remember that at one point, reaching for a certain volume, she nearly upset the bouquet; the aplomb with which she righted the flowers and went serenely on thrilled me. How superbly different from the way I'd have reacted in the same situation! As I cornily perceived the situation, I was a clod and she was a princess; to be her vassal would be my true vocation.

I went up afterward, shy but excited, to meet her. Her photo, cut from one of the posters which had announced her coming, found its place on the wall of my room. I daily performed what I would later know as puja before it. From now on I was going to be a Special Person, which meant, according to my lights of that epoch, a poet.

And poet I did become. For a year or two afterwards, with a dexterity which astonishes me now, I composed, rather after the style of T.S. Eliot, verse after verse. The mature man of today finds some of these compositions, written by a young stranger he cannot imagine ever having been, surprisingly moving.

And so the dispositions began which were to thrust me toward what I have become now. In some book about Shelley, probably André Maurois's Ariel, I had been impressed by a photo of the poet wearing a shirt with a wide collar from which hung a flowing scarf tied in a loose knot something like a sailor's bow. This was what men poets wore. With some effort I assembled the necessary items for my own use. I even wore this outfit on the street till shamed into getting rid of it by hoots of derision from crude contemporaries. But I not only identified with the way Shelly looked; I identified with the way I imagined he had felt: life is tragic; and the way he was said to have thought: Christianity is non-liberating. But art can transcend the ordinary.


I not only wanted to be; I wanted also to avoid. The Methodist church our family attended on Wednesday night for prayer meeting and often twice on Sunday was Oh so dull. The minister's name was Reverend Laity; what a funny name for a member of the clergy! He wore a wig, and this was a subject for intense speculation on the part of my sister and me. We had heard that wigs sometimes slipped about on the head, or maybe indeed remained inside gentlemen's hats when they doffed them for politeness' sake. Sitting there in our pew, bored to death, my sister and I centered our attention more on such a hoped-for disaster than on anything the pastor said.

There was on Sunday morning, before the sermon, what was called a class meeting, or testimony service. This was attended mostly by the old-timers, but I was expected to be present with my parents. The class was directed by a severe old man named Mr. Wilcox. He would start off by relating how the Lord had helped him during the past week, or by reproclaiming his faith in God. One by one the others would stand up and give their testimonies. I waited in agony for my turn to come, or to be called on. For I had absolutely nothing to say. I spent the time while the others were speaking rehearsing in my mind my very small speech, then eventually rose and stammered it out, feeling resentful and insincere, despite the "Amen" someone would usually utter as I finished and sat down.

Of course we studied the Bible intensely. I was not at all attracted by the carryings-on related in the Old Testament. The Chosen People seemed immensely unstable and quarrelsome and their prophets oddly crude. Jesus was of course much more attractive, but I could never come to grips with what he must have been like. I resented the mawkishness of the colored pictures handed out at Sunday School. The only representation of Jesus I really liked and still recall in every detail was portrayed on one of the stained glass windows of the church auditorium. Jesus, wearing a crimson robe with a turnback inner lining which glowed white when the sun shone through the glass, was kneeling in prayer before what appeared to be a large flat rock or possibly tree stump. His hands were clasped before him and his eyes directed upward. He looked earnest, almost real, and likeable. I loved him and have always loved him. (That window is still there; I saw it again in 1987 on a short trip to Lansing. But now Reverend Laity's parsonage beside the church has vanished in favor of a parking lot, and the structure itself has been renamed the Bethel Baptist Church.)

Eventually Reverend Laity was replaced by a young modernist. His sermons reflected his interest in the then revolutionary Higher Criticism. In other words, he was intent on demystifying Christianity. This so outraged my parents that they formed a dissident group with other like-thinking members and resigned from the First Methodist Church of Lansing, to form a Nazarene chapel not far from our home. The Nazarenes were more exciting than the Methodists, but for me very low-class.

I am astonished that I sensed even at that stage that what we were taught was mostly kindergarten stuff. Concerning religion as preached at the North Street Church of the Nazarene, like later on concerning romance, my instinct asked: Is this all? It should have been more than that.

I can understand why teenagers commit suicide. Something opens, some perception clears, and you see the world as it is, people as they are, religion as less than it should be, and you are appalled to think that you must be a part of a world consisting of such elements for years and years to come.

One day I shouted out at my mother that feeling. I must have been about seventeen. We were in the kitchen, and she stopped doing what she was doing and just looked at me. "I don't want to grow up and get old and be just like everybody else," I cried. "Like you and Father and the church people and everybody else." Mother looked stricken. "There must be something else, some better way. I want to be, to be, a poet." Then a sudden inspiration: "Or a monk."

"O my dear," Mother replied. That's all she replied: "O my dear." Perhaps she too had once entertained such "intimations of immortality" — or repugnance for mortality. She repeated the bit about not being a missionary so often that I caught glimpses of the chinks in a relationship my parents did their best to keep intact for the sake of us children, and despair over the way her life had gone or was going.


I early learned about hypocrisy, and the knowledge devastated me. I don't think today I could call anyone a hypocrite; I have experienced so many temptations to be untrue to my ideal that I realize people don't "fall" because they want to or intend to; it is mischance or a flare-up of dormant karma which takes over in spite of one's best intentions. Nobody deliberately betrays his ideals. But the young do their photographing in stark black and white.

A trite story. The pastor of the church my parents had helped to found was said to be having an affair with a woman of the parish who was not his wife. I turned the humiliation I felt into spitefulness by writing a short story about a famous woman evangelist who gets so worked up by the carnality she loves to denounce that she is tempted into committing that very act of carnality herself, and does so. This was the first of my indiscretions as a writer. My parents were of course indignant when I proudly showed them my story.

I have attended enough evangelistic services and viewed a sufficiency of holy-roller goings-on so as to feel that what occurs in them has a very close relation to the sexuality whose condemnation is their constant theme. Is it not always so whenever any form of fanaticism is practiced? The fault condemned will become the fault the one condemning it is most likely to fall prey to. Why? Because one is concentrating intensely on that fault, and what one concentrates on one interjects and eventually manifests.

When some time later the facts concerning Aimée Semple MacPherson's randy personal life became known, I saw my work of youthful fiction about the lady evangelist a subtler and truer depiction than I had dared to believe at the time when I wrote it.


As I learned about hypocrisy, I learned also about sorrow. Father's family had been in the United States for generations, but my grandfather on my mother's side at age twenty-one had emigrated to America from Cornwall. Eager to meet her father's English family, his eldest daughter Jane Richards (who was to become my favorite aunt) made a trip to Cornwall in 1911. There she met and fell in love with a first cousin named Julian Pascoe, several years younger than she.

The two corresponded ardently and Aunt Jane began to have reason to expect that the relationship would lead to marriage. She revisited Cornwall in the summer of 1914. That was hardly the moment to fix on a marriage; nevertheless she and Julian became engaged. Julian was already in uniform. The ship bringing Aunt Jane back to the United States at the end of that famous summer was accosted by a German submarine.

His experiences in the war, the fact that Jane was older than he, and anxiety that marrying a first cousin might produce abnormality in the children the two might produce caused Julian to have second thoughts. At the war's end he gently withdrew from the engagement and married a local girl. In the final letter of their correspondence Julian expressed this decision to Aunt Jane, begging her to understand.

Now ensued a scene which I did not witness but which I heard described by my grandmother. Aunt Jane went out to the back yard and lighted a bonfire into which, one by one, she dropped Julian's letters, she standing over the fire with tears pouring down her face until the last page had been consumed.

I could see the scene and understand what Aunt Jane must have felt. The love I bore her was mingled with a sort of awe, an awe for one who had known and lost a great love. I resolved to meet Julian some day, and I did so on my first trip abroad in 1936. I could see that he had been right. By then Aunt Jane was clearly an old woman, whereas Julian was of robust middle age. This made the sorrow I felt even more intense. Why should life be like that? And a peculiar aspect of the story is that — whether due to some deficiency on her part or his, I never knew — Julian never succeeded in producing any child with his English wife. And this, it seemed to me, intensified the tragedy, by adding to sorrow the possibility of regret.


When I finished high school in 1931 I had entertained the idea of going to Yale College and studying architecture. My tenth-grade "Career Book" was on the subject of architecture, and I remember that the cover featured a structure in the form of a big capital A resembling what we were later to know as an A-frame house. I wrote to Yale citing a rumor I'd heard that first sons of Yales could attend that university tuition free, and received a reply from New Haven in faraway Connecticut stating that no one there had ever heard of such a provision. Well, it was the Depression and I didn't insist — and Michigan State College was only a few miles from our home.

But my conscientious parents felt that it would be good for me to have the experience of living for a while away from home; so I was enrolled in what was felt to be the "wholesome atmosphere" of Olivet College, a Nazarene co-educational institution located in Central Illinois not far from Danville.

Olivet, Illinois, was an absolute nowhere — one three-story building set back from the state highway, surrounded by cornfields. No beauty, no evidence of culture, just a barren building which felt like an orphanage or correctional institution. It was T-shaped, with the top of the T fronting on the ill-maintained front yard (the school rooms and women's dormitory were here). The supporting member of the T, facing an endless prospect of agriculture, was inhabited by the boys.

In Olivet I became as disobedient as in high school I had been obedient. I wandered off by myself and bought cigarettes, which I smoked in the one picturesque setting I could find, the bank of a nearby meandering stream. Once or twice I hitchhiked to Danville — a big thrill — and even made it to Winnetka, north of Chicago, to spend a week end with my Aunt May, Uncle Harry, and Cousin Mary Jane.

Intrigued by Abraham Lincoln, I went for a week end to his old home and burial place in Springfield, Illinois, putting up in an inexpensive hotel. It is here that I saw my first movie (we were not allowed to go to the Strand or Lyceum at home). I saw three films in two days: Freaks, now recognized as a weird classic, something about Arsin Lupin, and Mata Hari, featuring Greta Garbo. Of course these pictures gave me psychological indigestion, and that night in the hotel I was feverish, with the images I had seen appearing and reappearing in the inner eye. But from then on I was hooked on movies.

It goes without saying that my behavior as a youth and that of Sri Ramakrishna had very few similarities. Yet there was one quality which we shared — a distaste for pretense. At Olivet College, years before I had ever heard the name of Sri Ramakrishna, motivated by a desire to puncture what I saw as pomposity, I practically replayed the scene of the young Gadadhar's scorning of Duradas Pyne.

The Matron at Olivet, too lady-like for comfort, always proclaiming pretentions of gentility, seemed to me a pompous old fool. (I now regret that early opinion of her, as I see her in retrospect as probably an impecunious widow trying somehow to find and maintain a place for herself in an uncaring world.) In any case, the Matron was to be the butt of my joke.

Jack Rodifer, an upperclassman, was my accomplice. There was a "parlor" near the Matron's residence on the third floor in the women's wing where students were allowed to entertain a "date". So Jack made a reservation and brought me, clothed in an old black dress I had begged off Aunt May, a hat pulled down over my face, and wearing bedroom slippers as footwear as I had not provided myself with high heels. The Matron looked at me curiously but let us in. When we got there alone in the parlor — what to do? Shyness overcame me; I think I tried to play a few hymn book tunes on the piano, and Jack and I mumbled a duet or two. The Matron, still puzzled, came in once or twice on chaperoning visits. In a little while we decided to escape. As we went by the Matron on the way out she tumbled. "Good heavens, it's John Yale!" she cried.

But a much more serious prank occurred on a Saturday night in the spring of that 1931-1932 scholastic year. The President of the college, an evangelist named, if I recall, Reverend Shellhammer, was present in the common room. We were playing some game in which the person who was it had to answer yes or no. At one point Reverend Shellhammer was it. I worded a question in such a way that however he would respond, the answer would be in the affirmative — in effect asking blanket permission to take my girl friend and another student and his girl friend on a moonlight promenade that night to the forest.

Feeling confident that I had obtained a kind of indulgence, we crept out and took what was termed the Three-Mile Walk. It was a bit frightening and quite innocent. Feeling guilty, we soon sneaked back, I believed undetected. I remember going to the Sunday service the following morning, very tired but triumphant in knowing what I knew nobody else knew. But word got out and I was called before the Registrar and given a suspension. I was to remain on the premises and attend no classes for two weeks. Credit was to be withheld until I repented and was reinstated. I rebelled at this as I felt that I secured the President's permission, and anyway it had all been perfectly innocent — a springtime lark. It was near the end of the term. I just quit, went to Winnetka, and stayed there till the date when my parents expected me to return, and burned with fury concerning the injustice I felt had been done me.

The transcript of credits from Olivet which I asked for when I enrolled at Michigan State College that summer showed me as having earned only a half-year's credits which anyway Michigan State balked at recognizing since there was some question about Olivet's academic standing. The result being that I did the four-year BA course in three years and one summer session.


So the world claimed me, as it does even poets. Yes, I wrote verses and short stories and plays and was considered to have talent, but life became more interesting than art.

The Depression being still on in 1935 when I graduated from college, I was thankful to obtain a high school teaching job in Mason, a small town near Lansing. My salary for the first academic year was one thousand dollars, half of which I saved by dining mostly on bread, sardines, and candy bars — which then cost five cents — so to save enough to travel to England during the summer vacation. The second year I was paid eleven hundred dollars, part of which I spent on a used Ford roadster with rumble seat. As the trip to Europe had delivered me from that dull small town during the summer months the first year, the Ford roadster permitted me to escape Mason every week end of the second. At the end of that second year my teaching contract was not renewed, for the School Board felt that I did not identify with the community — with a church, with local activities, with the town's aspirations and its children. This was perfectly true; I discounted them all. Nevertheless, my dismissal was a painful shock. Well, I faced facts, took courage in hand (and the $120 I cleared from selling my car), and hitch-hiked to Chicago and the great world. I was a Chicagoan for the next eleven years.

What a city it was! Al Capone and John Dillinger were recent memories. Black jazz was in full flower. Different neighborhoods sheltered newly-arrived ethnic minorities — Czechs, Germans, Poles, Italians — whose culture had not yet been amalgamated; so that old-country customs, cuisine, music were there for native Americans like me to savor. Harriet Monroe's "Poetry" magazine, which had given such poets as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Robert Frost early audiences, was still functioning.

At first in Chicago I free-lanced children's books, then became a school book editor at the salary of thirty-five marvelous dollars a week, finally the director of a publishing house specializing in new type "teaching tools" and psychological tests. This was the then small firm called Science Research Associates of which Lyle Spencer was President, and which eventually became such a success. In due course I decorated my name with the initials of an advanced university degree. I became a member of professional organizations. I wrote learned articles and gave speeches. I even had myself rebaptized an Episcopalian in an added thrust toward respectability. Prestige, money, and romance were what I really cared about, and I experienced the sweet and bitter aspects of them all.

Of course nothing helped.


My first close friend was a high school comrade named Joseph Cherwinski. We maintained our early affection for each other for fifty-odd years. But how different were our two lives! Whereas I left our home town as quickly as I could, to go everywhere and do everything, he remained in that Midwestern city, to pass there his life as librarian and poet. I have sometimes asked myself whether Joe, by remaining close to his roots, achieved more effectively than I did what I scoured the world to experience. I never came out and asked him, and now that Joe is dead I shall never know what he would reply. A few years ago Joe sent me a sonnet he had written called "To John":

Trembling in Michigan a time ago
With cashmere eyes averted, lips apart
The saint-to-be to saintly ways said no
And broke his father's Fundamental heart.
He played Ravel, he sipped at gin, he read
Those bitter British poets (now serene).
He said, in searing pain, that God was dead.
He said good-by to Michigan. And mean,
He tried Chicago, L.A., and the East.
Caroused in fleshpots, earned a deal of dough,
And scorned the skeleton at every feast.
But his good heart, his sweet heart quivered no.
For saint he was and saint he came to be:
My friend, my sweet friend, back to God and me.

Yes, this sums up my life not at all badly, although I would quibble about the words "scorned" in the eleventh line and "saint" in the thirteenth. I did not "scorn" the skeleton at every feast; I "was" the skeleton at every feast — a failed hedonist. For someone who becomes a devotee is oftener than not someone who has tried to take pleasure in the world but always found himself unable to lose himself in its proffered joys. At least in my case, even when engaged in the most sensational of pleasures, there came the attendant feeling: "This is not what I want; I'm not really meant for this." As for the word "saint", this is shorthand for something else. The word I should use is "sadhak" — a spiritual seeker. Or "devotee" — someone struggling to gain a state of grace. Attaining grace does join us, as Joe says, to the noble self we really are, and ties together past and future. And ties us to all others, too. One does go home again, but, fortunately, not at all the same person one was when one left.


In the conversation with my mother long before, I had used the word "poet". In addition, the word "monk" had slipped out. I knew nothing about monks, and indeed we as Protestants viewed monastics with considerable Lutheran distaste. What I meant, of course, was someone who lived a clean, inspired life and gave himself to a lofty cause. Having lived among writers and been one myself, I saw that the status of literary craftsman wouldn't do. Could I really aspire to be a monk?

When I first joined the Hollywood center we used to discuss whether it is preferable to enter religion very young, knowing nothing, or older, having experienced everything. Those who entered as innocents, it was argued, might later feel that they had missed essential experiences; this might be destabilizing. Those older, it was argued, make their renunciation with their eyes open, after having traveled awhile on the Ship of Fools, or having spent a season in Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights and understood the folly of the world for what it is. They enter as convinced veterans. I always argued in favor of this second position, since that described my own situation.

"Men," said Oscar Wilde, "enter marriage knowing everything and expecting nothing. Women enter marriage knowing nothing and expecting everything. Both are disappointed." In the present context the word "disappointed" is not the happiest word. It should be: "Both have to struggle". Innocents will phantasize on and hunger for experiences never known, but the experienced will phantasize equally on experiences experienced, with nostalgia to repeat them. Sri Ramakrishna spoke of the wooden bowl used for crushing garlic as forever smelling of garlic no matter how many times it is washed. He spoke of the bull which still tries to mount cows long after it has been castrated, out of remembered pleasure.

Now I support the first alternative. Better if you can enter early, at the moment when that youthful idealism first strikes you. The human being is a bundle of samskaras — impressions. Everything he does, everything he thinks, leaves its mark on the psyche (subtle body). These must be expressed, or sublimated, or, ideally, neutralized by higher impressions. Neutralizing samskaras is what spiritual struggle is. Even innocents carry sufficient samskaras from previous lives — Carl Jung would call them contents from the collective unconscious — which have to be dealt with. Why add to the stock unnecessarily from the present life, too?

I have often wondered what would have happened to me if I had met a wise man, a guru, in my teens. In 1930 several of Ramakrishna's direct disciples were still alive. But they were Bengalis living in India. In 1930 we would have considered them "natives" and idolators, such as my mother regretted not having been commissioned to convert. By 1930 the Vedanta centers in New York and San Francisco had been in existence for years, with wise swamis as heads. Swami Prabhavananda, who was to become my guru, then about thirty-seven years old, was just beginning his work in Hollywood. But it was not to be.

The situation is much better now, with numerous centers in the West. And to me, as an old man, encouraging young aspirants such as I might have been, and giving them an opportunity to avoid playing "the angry ape" — this is what I find a most sympathetic part of my work.

Even a prudent confessor, if I had been a Catholic, might have known what to do with me. Seminary and the priesthood? Early entry into a Christian order? I grew to know quite well a house of Franciscans later, at Santa Barbara, after I had become a brahmachari of the Ramakrishna Order, and wondered what I should have become had I gone to them at the time of my first questioning. I fear I should have been discontented ultimately with Catholic dogmatism, for the virus of universalism had already started working in me.


So the Crisis of Age Thirty had begun to brew in me, and I saw that something had to be done. What happened next has been recounted in the book I edited a few years later called What Vedanta Means to Me, which account I have summarized in Chapter Two of the present book: the awakening of a serious interest in religion, the discovery of Vedanta literature, the shift to Southern California, the meeting with Swami Prabhavananda, and the beginning of life in Swami Prabhavananda's Hollywood center.

The day I left Chicago for California, May 30, 1948, I quit smoking. I'd been a compulsive smoker of cigarettes for years, while continually resenting the enslavement. I reasoned that smoking, like any other practice, was to a large extent reinforced by association with other habitual activities; and since I was making a complete break with what I had been doing up to then, I could quit smoking less painfully during the transition. Perhaps this was true, but it was a struggle, and on the trip to California and for some weeks after I got there I consumed fruit drops and chewed gum furiously. But I knew it was then or never. The first three days were painful, but passing then without a cigarette gave me courage to continue. At the end of ten days the thousand imploring fingers in my lungs grew less insistent, and by the end of a month the more acute withdrawal pains had diminished. Doing it "cold turkey" is the only way, or so I believe. But I knew then, as I know now, that I must maintain total rejection. One long drag, and I'd risk being back on the blasted things all over again.


I took up residence at the Vedanta Society of Southern California as a monastic probationer on 1 April, 1950. But in a certain sense my entry should be chronicled as having occurred some months before. Swami Prabhavananda had instructed Belur Math — how informally these things were done at that time! — to write my name on the register the summer previously, as I was about to surpass the prescribed age limit for joining.

Life in the Hollywood center in 1950 and in all the years that followed was oh so different from the independent existence I had known up to that time. It is all there in my diaries, of which some sixty-one volumes, each volume totaling perhaps 150 pages, exist. Yes, at least eight thousand pages, or a good 2,000,000 words of it. The sample entries which follow describe the new life and my early reaction to it.

June 25, 1951. Ram Nam night — a nightmare. The same old characters singing the same old unfortunate Hindu songs: they don't know what they mean, and they try to sing like synthetic Hindus, which they will never be. The last time we did Ram Nam Mrs. B., an old faithful, suddenly shouted, "I refuse anymore to sing words I don't understand." She threw her paper down and rushed out. We haven't seen her since. This eighteen-hour-a-day sociality is too much for me.

The nights are the worst. Sundown; really it begins at the close of the work day, when I shut the office. I feel so empty, so much in need I could cry. Not exactly for someone, but of some understanding, some solution.

And then I go to arati and say the Lord's name for an hour, or rather for forty-five minutes, for fifteen are taken up by the ringing of the bell and shouting of a monotonous "Jai Sri Ramakrishna" followed by a trite-sounding poem and a Bengali song that even in translation is pretty senseless.

Then supper, which I skip, as I do breakfast. Just too boring, these people whom I'd never select as friends or employees or associates. Meals involve more of the same uneatable starches. I cry for citrus and proteins. Bread, rice, overcooked vegetables ruined by spices. Every meal involves a great pile of dishes and that same excited bantering chatter which I find so revolting. It is like a cheap fraternity, that's what it is, for these people have the brilliancy and poise of average twenty-year-olds.

Then to the living room for an hour or two of darshan — Swami sitting in his chair, and the bumpkins sitting around, mostly in silence, or stabbing out at something of interest — dreadful stuff about politics, personalities, common chitchat.

Then at 9:00 or 9:30 Swami gets up. "Well, good night," he says, and marches off to his room. A few follow him, the H's, P's, A's. I've been to one or two of these reunions, but I'm not a habitué. It consists of nightcaps and more chitchat. You see, Swami has a wonderful desire to make the days fun — an air of festivity, which often shocks my workaday soul. It's all too festive for me.

Can it be worked out? I don't feel noble; there's no payoff in that — you'd just be laughed at. I can't pray. I feel no closeness to Swami, although I dimly see that there must be a thrashing out of all this with him if it doesn't clear up.

I sleep well; thank God for that. To sleep, to die awhile. To have things solved by just going away without loss of face, without muffing your one great chance in this life.

August 30, 1951. What is this drive toward? Is it God? Then why are my God-concentration times so dull? When I told John van Druten something of this, he said, "No doubt much of it is dull, as you say. But what about your — may I call them — ecstasies?" Honey, there just ain't no ecstasies.

April 9, 1952. I'm stuck — unable to feel anything for religion, unable to go back. When I said this, Swami became quite serious, but he didn't condemn me. Said it was normal. As to the statement that I don't love God, he replied, "Good! Neither do I. If we said we did it would be sentimentality."

June 10, 1952. Swami at last disciplined me openly. During the past few weeks I have been pushing in to break down the formality of our relationship. A week or two ago he actually patted me on the cheek — so I knew I was in for it. So he chose my work of manuscript checking on his and Christopher Isherwood's Patanjali aphorisms book as the subject of five violent lectures, none of which was merited, because the manuscript as it came to me was faulty.

I had always vowed I'd not retreat in rage when my time came, but move ahead with love. This I did, making Swami's bed, getting his drinking water, etc. He later expressed a kind of remorse to Chris, telling him I'd reacted very well.

As we know, such disciplining has nothing to do with the merits or demerits of the situation it is based upon. In fact, to scold you for something about which you're not wrong is more telling. The Patanjali manuscript was poor mechanically, and we finally accepted most of the adjustments I had wanted to make in it. Swami's point was: "Who do you think you are that you can correct Chris? He is a standard English writer. He is "creating" the English language." Chris himself confessed inadequacy regarding his mechanics, and of course Swami backtracked in the blandest manner and without the least loss of face.


And so it went. I had a hard time of it at Hollywood, and consequently made things hard for my guru and the other members. For what was happening was a remolding, or the commencement of a drastic remodeling, of my psyche. That doesn't come easily, especially to the mature. Despair, rage, humiliation — you have to experience them all.

But I was happy, too. I worked at tasks that pleased me — editorial work, construction, propagation of Vedantic ideas. In 1952-53 I visited all the Vedanta centers in America and Europe, spent five months in India looking first-hand at the home base of our movement, and wrote a book describing a neophyte's encounter with that strange land. I took brahmacharya in 1955 and became Prema Chaitanya, then went on for eight more sometimes desperate, sometimes satisfying, years until I went back to India and took sannyas in 1963-64.

In 1966 I shifted to the Centre Védantique Ramakrichna at Gretz, France, where I have been ever since, and where I am at this moment composing these lines. Now, of course, I am thankful — and amazed — to see that, in spite of everything, or probably because of everything, I have nearly made it back, in Joe's words, "to God and me".

In a speech I gave at Gretz after a dinner on July 29, 1988, attended by many devotees, to celebrate my seventy-fifth birthday, I offered this summing up.

Dear Friends,

This is the twenty-second time that my anniversary 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 a feeling of 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 these 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, or gaga. Statistically speaking, I must be classified as a survivor with highly uncertain prospects.

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 retirement a good ten years ago. Even those antiques of 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 one closes one's eyes for the last time or can no longer get out of bed. Voila, our system of Social Security 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 words of the dying priest in that splendid book by Georges 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 and inspiring people. Grace that I was always able to work in jobs which interested me. Grace also — as Swami Vivekananda says in one of his letters — that I made big mistakes, for I have profited from them. Grace that I found a guru 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 in ideal conditions and with helpful associates under the protection of an ideal leader. Grace, grace; it is all grace.

I know that 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, 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 beards 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 worldwide 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 caste 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 them as follows. My constant effort has been to see that order prevailed in the ashrama, that everything ran harmoniously, so that residents and guests could find a real haven of solace here. Also I hoped to aid the President, to make things easy for him, so that his talent for spiritual leadership could be exercised to the maximum.

I am often amused by the fact that in effect I have had not one but two spiritual exemplars, and each totally different the one from the other. Most aspirants have their hands 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, of course, 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 to me seems preferable. The saving formula, often enunciated by our President, 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 he and we 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 at Ganges near Chicago on this topic and roused quite a lot of excitement. Vedanta societies organized as churches are attracting but few new adherents; the ashrama model is coming to the fore as a more effective agency for giving aspirants experience in religious living. As a locale 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 presiding over 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 understand also how much these 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 motto 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.

>> next Chapter