Swami Vidyatmananda: The Making of a Devotee
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Chapter Nine

The Devotee as Passenger to India and More


We invent or imagine qualities in others in order to make up for lacks in ourselves, or to complement lacks. The splendid character of a beloved is mostly the invention of the ardent lover, and in time is seen to be what it really is — hardly better or worse than my own. The lack which I had hoped to fill, in making him or her a part of myself, still remains. We do this with places also. A tired city dweller will imagine that a move to the country will give him rest; of course it won't; rural tiredness will merely replace city fatigue. As to the country dweller, it is to the city that he turns for the self-fulfillment which up to then has evaded him. Since coming to France I was astonished to learn that Paris — which millions the world over would almost give their right arm to be able to live in — is felt to be nearly killing as a place of residence by many Parisians — although I have to admit that most of them wouldn't want to live permanently anywhere else. Their compromise is to clog the roads leading out of the city every Friday evening in the pursuit of rural weekends, and worn out and grumpy, suffer long traffic jams coming back home on Sunday night.

Thus people rush out from where they are, just as they seek new loves, different bright blue yonders, in the hope that over there, or out there — somewhere else — the lack they feel may be gratified.

An Oxford Fellow, Peter Conrad, speaks of this phenomenon in an interesting book entitled Imagining America. The book examines the pictures of America presented to the English reading public by British writers who concerned themselves with the U.S.A. Each went to North America expecting to experience there something he felt did not exist at home. Imagining America follows a number of English authors to the New World: Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, H. G Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, and D. H. Lawrence. In the latter part of his book Conrad examines the activities of three gifted English authors who chose not only to go to the U.S.A. but to remain there: W. H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, and Christopher Isherwood. The pictures of America presented by these writers varied one from another, and none of course told the whole truth or maybe much objective truth about the country. The inner needs of the writers, rather than objective truth about America, are what were being portrayed. A new setting was simply a convenient motivator for reflection.

India has been particularly subject to this kind of imagining, and that for the past fifteen centuries. From Yuan Chwang in the seventh century to today's enthusiastic India lovers — and India decriers — the trend has continued. I am one who has done his share of imagining about India. My life has been enormously affected by my concept of India, and still is. But I see now, like a lover finally thrown back upon himself, that I had to go out in order to know where to discover what I was seeking. And that, of course, was within myself.

Hiouen-thsang and those who preceded and followed him found a land of marvels. Many Chinese pilgrims went to India to search out traces of Lord Buddha, and this they did, bringing back to China reporters' knapsacks full of information on the Indian man-god who was to become in time one of the deities of China. They also reported on Brahmanic doctrines and the riches and culture of the fabulous Bharat.

For centuries India played the role in men's imagination which astonishing planets play now in present-day science fiction: far away, hardly attainable, replete with wonders. Man must believe that the fabulous exists in order to be willing to support the pedestrianism of the present.

The British colonial voyager of the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth century could imagine an India serving him in varied ways. If he had failed at home he could there take up respectable exile. Or if you were young and had get up and go, India could offer you a shortcut to getting rich (if you didn't die first) — as did his brief governorship at Madras provide my ancestor, Elihu Yale. Or India could be thought of as an arena for adventure and heroism. Or if you were a scholar you could study exotic fauna and flora or equally exotic customs, languages, peoples, and gods. And to the evangelistic-minded Christian, India appeared to be an enormous field of idolators ready to be harvested for the Savior.

Europeans saw India according to their fashion and made careers for themselves in giving play to their imaginations concerning that country. For Abbé J. A. Dubois (Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies), India's ignorance and poverty provided sure proof of Christianity's superiority. Some very fine travel books on India were published in the late eighteen-hundreds, such as Gustave le Bon's Les Civilisations de l'Inde and L'Inde des Rajahs: Voyage Dans l'Inde Centrale by Louis Rousselet; but the underlying theme was the same — India's backwardness and her need for occidental-style development.

This was the picture of India I held as a child in the 1920's. Returned missionaries broke into tears at the monthly meetings of our church's missionary society — often held in my family's home — as they described the misery and ignorance of that land. My mother was still giving money to missionaries working in India up to the time of her death in 1973. For Mother, India was a land which offered her the chance to play the humanitarian figure and the converter of the benighted she never succeeded in playing at home. What amusing play of karma caused her own son to adopt of his own choosing many of the religious attitudes she so fiercely scorned?

Someone has said that it takes fifty years for a new idea to become popular, and we can see how true this is. Swami Vivekananda's great effort in America and Britain from 1893 to 1900 to dispel the notion that India was a benighted country had made little dent in popular thinking more than a generation later — even more than two generations later. Traces of the old attitudes still exist.

Of course, not everyone saw India as a land to be exploited for profit or place or career. Sanskritists Paul Deussen and Max Müller marveled at the riches of India's Vedic culture and brought those riches to public notice. As did Emile Bournof working in France. Yet they too invented an India built on their own imagination — a land of sages. Max Müller never went to India, and Deussen only once, for two months. But at least theirs was a more worthy invention; and we can understand Vivekananda's delight when in 1896 Max Müller published a book praising Sri Ramakrishna.


The first stirrings of another India that was to be invented came, it may be said, in 1924 when E. M. Forster published A Passage to India. The title was drawn from a poem by Walt Whitman, in which the poet urges mankind to seek broader horizons. Read today, the novel A Passage to India strikes us as an excellent work of fiction but a period piece describing a culture already vanished — a bit like, say, the England described by the Brontés or something by Dickens. But what Forster's novel has to say was quite extraordinary in 1924: it said that while Indians were quite possibly lacking in certain qualities, their English overlords were also.

Forster attempted to show that while there is an occidental mind, there is equally an oriental mind which in its way is quite as worthy. In one place he speaks of suspicion being characteristic of Indians, but hypocrisy of Englishmen. He shows Indians as terribly lackadaisical, responding with yes and no at the same time, while the British are sure and see everything in black and white. Forster speaks much of the oriental muddle, contrasted to British orderliness, but depicts in scathing terms the sterility of English respectability. A Passage to India is as severe toward the British as toward the Indians, perhaps severer. (We now know how much of an independent thinker on social issues, despite his overt respectability, Forster really was.) Both are pictured as driven by the necessity of their situation and their heritage. A book of confrontations — by people of good will who simply cannot get together and who repent eventually of every attempt to do so.

Yet Forster ends with two conclusions remarkable for 1924 — that India will become independent some time in the future when Europe is engaged in a western war, and that Fielding and Aziz — the two characters who represent enlightened members of their respective species — will become true friends, but not yet. Both prophecies have come true.

The imagining of India now moved ahead rapidly due in a large part to the genius of Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, and Romain Rolland. Tagore, with this white beard, long hair, and prophet's robe — and his inspirational poems — could so easily have been a Christian. He conjured up before western eyes a wholly new and quite acceptable India. Gandhi even more so. It was hard to believe, but here, even though presenting himself as a half-naked fakir, was an undeniable hero of the spirit, an example even of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. And there, right in the middle of Europe, was Romain Rolland, friend of Tagore and Gandhi, crying out for virtues associated with India, at that time largely ignored in the West.

This summary neglects other contributors to the reinvention of India: Sir William Jones, Monier Williams, Annie Besant and the Theosophists, Leon Tolstoy, the earlier New England Transcendentalists, and many more.

The idea that India was respectable, that it had much to teach the West, now gained ground rapidly. There was Jawaharlal Nehru's thick history book Discovery of India. There was Vincent Sheehan's Lead Kindly Light. There were serious books by Indian and western philosophers treating Hinduism, and books by swamis of the Ramakrishna Order working in the West.


In the 1950's appeared my travel book A Yankee and the Swamis. This book was never much of a success in terms of sales and maybe not in influence, but it was among the first to propose yet another reimagination of India, one which was to become extravagantly popular in the 1970's and is today: India as a place where disenchanted western people can go to seek enlightenment. That idea was to spawn the enormous inundation on India's already encumbered soil: of searchers after a quick psychological fix, of the wounded birds of industrialism, of yoga adepts and vegetarians, and of, of course, a certain number of devotees intent on touring the sites of Ramakrishna's life or seeking the darshan of such spiritual figures as Ramana Maharshi, Swami Ramdas, Sri Aurobindo Ghosh and the Mother, and Ananda Mayi Ma.

I do not forget the influence of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge (1942) which first introduced to ordinary western people such conceptions as yoga practice and enlightenment. I have treated the Larry phenomenon in Chapter Five.

There were contrary opinions as well. V. S. Naipaul, a descendent of India born in Trinidad, hopefully returning to his forefathers' homeland and finding himself sorely disappointed there, in a book written in 1962, invented and described an India devoid of energy and new ideas, living on the dry husk of its past, a cultural pariah incapable of playing any cultural role in the modern world. I met Naipaul in London in 1964 and tried to counter his negativism by talking of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, and the possible renaissance these personalities might inspire. He remained unconvinced. However by 1980 Naipaul felt more encouraged. He still decried the cynicism of the privileged classes but felt that India's involvement in education had brought good results. In an interview published in Newsweek, July 3, 1989, he said: "The involvement in education seems to have paid off. There is a process of self-analysis going on which is quite remarkable and which has never happened in Indian history. There is play of mind constantly now in India." Three years later in new book entitled A Million Mutinies Now Naipaul spoke enthusiastically of a revolution in thought taking place in India in many areas.

Is the India I imagined in The Yankee and the Swamis the real India? I have had a long time to reflect on that question.

I was one of the first of the new sort of Western visitors to India who saw the country not from a hotel window, a first-class railway compartment, or the back of an elephant, but by going from ashrama to ashrama, temple to temple, in dhoti and sandals, almost as a native Indian, and to write about it. Although presently out of print, my book still serves as a sought-after handbook for Ramakrishna devotees making a pilgrimage to India and wanting to understand the religious significance of what they are going to see there.

The book is an honest reportage by someone who tried to come to grips with India. I feel that it is balanced in that it touches on the mess and misery while at the same time delineates the spiritual values India has to offer a sincere seeker. The title tries to say that one enters spiritual life as a mere observer and ends up as an insider, a process which leads from the outside in and from afar to the center.

I made that trip as a kind of test two years after joining the Hollywood center as a monastic probationer. I well understood that our theology as well as our style of working flowed from India, and that my future life, if I were to become a member of the Order, would be largely directed from India by Indians. Therefore let me see India, the origin of our faith and the seat of our hierarchy, and what kind of forces directed our Order. I went green and bumptious and the book that emerged revealed me as green and bumptious. One Indian monastic brother characterized some of the language as saucy; in reading some passages today I wince. But it contains interpretations of permanent utility. Reread in 1988, the text seems dated as a travelogue but quite useful as recent social history.

Swami Prabhavananda tried to warn me, before I started for India, against disillusionment. He was right, for much that I saw in India, I must admit, nearly made me lose my fledgling faith, much as André Gide completely renounced his adherence to communism after he toured Russia in 1934. Swami warned before I left: "Except for religious values, India is all nonsense." (He often argued that we could obtain the advantages of Vedanta by remaining in a western center — having all the best that India could offer while profiting at the same time, as he put it, from the comforts of western plumbing.) On the way, when I stopped at the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York, Swami Nikhilananda, always eloquent on the subject of India's septic potentialities, warned: "India will kill you." (Tourism in India. now so commonplace and relatively comfortable, presented rigorous challenges in 1952.)

My attitude in India was to fearlessly probe into everything — the intrepid reporter. Of course I made the classic mistake of any self-assured observer who thinks he can find truth in a hurried glance. A Yankee and the Swamis is a book which one could write at thirty or thirty-five, but not at fifty or sixty. Yet it is not without value. As Christopher Isherwood evaluated it in a blurb he wrote for the flaps,

John Yale is a most unusual kind of traveler. He comes to India for the first time both as an outsider and an insider. He is able to see much that few westerners even catch a glimpse of; and though what he sees is new to him his training helps him understand it. As a writer, he possesses the art of making us relive his journey with him. He seems to know in advance just what questions we shall be wanting to ask and he answers them always lucidly, and often with insight and humor. I don't know of any other book that is quite like this one.

The text of A Yankee and the Swamis began appearing serially in issues of "Vedanta and the West". These chapters delighted western readers because they seemed to present for the first time the India of the Ramakrishna devotee as it really was and to let him see what it felt like to go there. (A sub-theme of the book was the author's heroism in surmounting bizarre situations and physical ordeals.) And it is true that even today, although the situation has become so much easier as our Swamis have grown used to receiving western visitors, devotees tell me how much the book prepared them for what they were to see and possibly misunderstand, and how it helped them comprehend sympathetically the significance of their experience.

But the chapters brought me instant trouble in India. My writing was too candid where it concerned personalities. I heard later that new numbers of "Vedanta and the West" were awaited at every center which I had visited with trepidation — what had I in this latest chapter to say about the residente there?

Reports began reaching me that I was creating a scandal, that I was in disfavor in India, that the authorities would never grant me brahmacharya, much less sannyas. Finally the President of the Ramakrishna Order, Swami Sankarananda, the dearest and kindest of men, perhaps goaded by those hurt by my reporting or afraid of being hurt, wrote to Swami Prabhavananda asking him to censor my texts. (I was surprised that Swami had never done so, for all manuscripts passed through his hands on the way to the press. The reason was that although Indian, Prabhavananda had lived in the West long enough so as to see many things as I did.) Hence from Chapter Four onward I became more restrained, and the whole text, before the book was published by Allen and Unwin, was revised with India's sensibilities in mind. Swami Vireswarananda, then Assistant Secretary of the Order, later President, read the final manuscript and approved it.

Writing A Yankee and the Swamis was an educational experience very salutary for me — the investigation of India, the discovery of the multifarious approaches to truth available there, and not least the fact that most western theology was kindergarten stuff compared to the fabulously rich and varied approaches available in Hinduism.

I have been to India twice since the 1952-53 trip which inspired A Yankee and the Swamis. When I went in 1963-64 for sannyas I thought that I might ask to remain permanently. (See the first section of Chapter Ten.) It is peculiar how India affects one — the ambivalence one feels toward her. Some aspects are so marvelous they make one love the country as one's own. Some aspects are so distasteful as to evoke extreme dislike — love and distaste at the same time.

A six-weeks' visit in 1971 confirmed my decision that I am better off living and working in the West. Imagining India had served its purpose. Going out had shown me the best way to come back, broadened, more educated, more inspired.


It has long been accepted as a truism that the Ramakrishna movement will usher in a mutually beneficial exchange between East and West. Swami Vivekananda visualized this and took steps to initiate such an exchange during his own lifetime. But this has never really come about. Not more than a handful of western devotees or monastics have wished to settle permanently in India. The traffic has flowed more successfully in the opposite direction. Many Indian Swamis have worked effectively and happily in America and Europe, albeit there were several who felt misplaced and insisted on an early return to their land of origin.

I never believed in the dream of mutual exchange. Perhaps it was an interesting idea in Swamiji's time, when India was materially backward and under the rule of a western power, when occidental sympathizers and techicians would be valuable acquisitions. But today it is difficult to visualize how the average western monastic could effectively serve Indians. India has entered the modern world and can competently handle her own affairs in most technical fields. Many of her sons and daughters have been educated in the West. Perhaps a few westerners whose language is English and are trained in editorial skills might be useful in connection with the Order's English publications; and indeed there has long existed a project to modernize the Advaita Ashrama at Mayavati as an editorial center where westerners could live and work in comfort. This might yet come about. Perhaps Mayavati might even become a center of intellectual ferment which the Order could well use. And a few western monastics might teach modern languages in the Order's schools. That is about all. Unless, of course, western members of the Order, especially fervent in their practice of Vedanta, were to work in India as preachers, presenting Ramakrishna Vedanta to Indians! Western missionaries teaching Indians to live their own faith more vigorously!

One hears that it is a sacrifice for an Indian sadhu to work in the West. The West is visualized as crass, dangerously sensual, populated by aggressive women who might make trouble, insistent on uncomfortable restrictions as to dress and behavior. To work in France, Germany, or Spain, for example, would require the acquisition of a new language. Many have refused to accept an assignment to the occident or have gone reluctantly. A Swami working in the West as assistant for some years, who eventually went back to India to assume a high post at Headquarters, told me in 1965: 'After all, India is our home, why should we be there? Far more scope here, in India, and in certain ways much more freedom.'

Thus the attitude has perpetuated itself that work in India is the real work: the West is not so very important, or at least not yet, although the West has been appreciated as a source of financial support. Thus we find swamis being sent to tribal regions in Assam, for example, to help bring primitive aboriginals into the modern world, or to counter missionary efforts to Christianize them, while it is reckoned as difficult to find sadhus available to work outside of India. Projects in India to give secular education to myriads of young people, to care for the bodies of countless sick, and to construct shelters for victims of perennial disasters proliferate, while fifty million Germans; fifty million Spaniards, and fifty million Italians are without Ramakrishna leadership. In all fairness, it must be stated that a member of the Order was recently spared to head the work in Holland and another was recently sent to Moscow.

So one asks, is famine and flood relief, reports of which currently make up more than half of the news items in the Order's monthly bulletin, the principal sort of relief that interests Ramakrishna's children? Today, a hundred years after the Order's inception, hardly more than 1 per cent of the total Indian personnel of the Order, not counting those working with Hindu populations in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore, and Fiji, labor outside of India. This despite Swami Vivekananda's frequent pronouncements that Ramakrishna came for the world and not just for India. In a letter dated 1895, addressed to Swami Ramakrishnananda, the first President of our Order said: 'Was Sri Ramakrishna the savior of India merely? It is this narrow idea that has brought about India's ruin and her welfare is an impossibility as long as this is not rooted out." I quote another letter from Vivekananda, that of the 20 November, 1896, addressed to Alasinga Perumal in Madras, in which he says, "And from these points [that is to say, Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, and Allahabad] if the Lord is pleased, we will invade not only India but send over bands of preachers to every country in the world. That should be our first duty. . . . You must not forget that my interests are international and not Indian alone." The following lines were included in a letter Swamiji wrote on 24 April, 1897, from Darjeeling: "Conquest of England, Europe and America — this should be our one supreme Mantram at present. . . . Expansion is the sign of life and we must spread over the world with our spirtual ideals."

So if the Ramakrishna Order cannot or will not send its representatives to the West, because of seeming priorities close at hand, the need will be met in other ways. This is already taking place, as we know. The past few years have seen an enormous expansion on the part of Indian-flavored organizations such as Krishna Consciousness, Transcendental Meditation, The Divine Life Society, the Self Realization Fellowship, and until recently the Rajneesh installation in Oregon which performed so scandalously. Krishna Consciousness, for example, boasts of one center in England, two in France, five in Italy, three in Belgium, three in Spain, two in Switzerland, one in Holland, and numerous establishments in other countries. The Sivananda centers conducted by Swami Vishnu Devananda are nearly as numerous. And so it goes. In addition, various free-lance sadhus have come from India, some founding centers, some remaining itinerant. Moreover one has seen the rise of countless movements claiming yoga or Indian orientation, but completely western except that the leaders (occidental) may have traveled in India, attended some yoga school there, and received some sort of ordination.

One cannot gainsay such organizations, for the success they enjoy proves that they are catering to manifest needs. And many preach reverence for, among other sources of inspiration, the poor brahmin of Kamarpukur.

The trustees of the Ramakrishna Order have decreed that the establishment of new centers in the West as well as in India should be prohibited for lack of personnel to lead them. At the same time it is understood at Headquarters that no swami of western origin may organize or lead a center. Both of these prohibitions are understandable. One sees the point. Yet they also effectively disenfranchise a substantial portion of the world's population from official contact with the Master's revelation.

The character of the Ramakrishna work in America and Europe, its impeccable reputation, and its large influence despite its numerical paucity, result from its professionalism; and generally that professionalism devolves from the fact that its heads of centers are Indians, descendants of a people which has immemorially devoted its main energy to the search for God. The Indian sadhu is endowed with authority in Vedantic matters which one rarely finds in the western swami no matter how well trained he might be in Hindu subjects.

About this my guru felt very strongly. Early in our association I asked him why he hadn't proposed sending me to the Training Center at Belur Math, the implication being that attendance there would professionalize me.

"Go if you want to," he replied, not pleased at all. "But you will gain more spiritually from staying right here."

"But I would, for instance, learn Bengali or Sanskrit."

"But that's why we translated the important works into English, so that you don't have to go to that bother. What you would acquire would be only a smattering, anyway." And he pointed out a couple of examples of howlers which even Max Müller had made in translating Sanskrit into English.

But as the saying goes, "something's got to give". And soon, if the Order wishes to see Ramakrishna's message accurately disseminated by his own ordained descendants.


Several alternatives exist. Some setup could be organized, preferably in the West, to train intensively a few selected western sadhus as future leaders for permitted western centers. The history of religious movements in the past strongly suggests that indigenous personnel sooner or later will be required to take up leadership roles if any movement is to expand locally. A faithful Vedantist living in New York wrote me recently: "The centers here do not seem to be thriving, although Indians seem to abound. I responded to a letter from Y just last week in which he was reporting the same trend in Chicago. Vedanta does not seem to be attracting American newcomers. . . . Many of us older Vedantists feel it is time for the American swamis to be leading the societies and speaking to Americans, young Americans, in a language that makes the teaching attractive and accessible. A culture gap is widening and it is to the detriment of the western work."

It is interesting to note that in a conference of sannyasin representatives of the four Ramakrishna centers in Europe, organized with the participation of the General Secretary of the Ramakriushna Math and Mission, Swami Gahanananda, in July, 1991, it was affirmed that western origin should not bar any suitably qualified swami from leadership of a western center.

Or our elders might simply let matters develop as they will. Let anybody and everybody preach Ramakrishna Vedanta — yes, St Paul's Gentiles — where and how he will. After all, Buddhism took strong hold outside the country of its origin, fostered by enthusiasts who had never had close contact with the Founder or his sangha. And Christianity from the earliest times was more a movement of non-Jews than of the Incarnation's own people.

But the preferable alternative, in my eyes, is that the Ramakrishna Math and Mission consider converting itself from a primarily humanitarian movement concentrating on India, to an international movement of spiritual teaching. That would release much personnel for worldwide spiritual tasks.

Are we absolutely sure, as it is perennially claimed, that this humanitarian emphasis, so strongly followed in India, is Swami Vivekananda's wish for us today? Are we certain that we are not simply following ingrained models of operation which strike us as right because they seem, in India, to evoke so much popular approval?

May I even go so far as to respectfully suggest that this popular approval, which seems to make of our swamis selfless heroes — great karma yogins — and which convinces them of the nobility of their objective — nay be deluding? Aldous Huxley's book Grey Eminence is a cautionary tale every swami should read. It is a biography of and reflection on the life of a French Capuchin of the 17th century, Father Joseph, who became the right-hand man and unofficial foreign minister of Cardinal Richelieu. Father Joseph was a perfect monk. He had conquered his senses, had no interest in money, lived a radically austere life, and devoted at least two hours a day to mental prayer, or meditation. He wanted nothing for himself. But he was convinced that God wanted Catholic France to become the leading power of Europe, and worked strenuously — often employing methods highly secular — to bring this about. He made a success of his work and considered his success not his but God's. But, muses Huxley, was it? What Father Joseph was a victim of — and didn't know it — was, in the words of Huxley, simply vicarious ambition.

The burden of my argument is that India must be imagined anew, or an earlier imagination renewed: homeland of seers and sages, of intrepid holy men who seek nothing but God, of world teachers of the Spirit. This is the India the western devotee wishes to envisage — he is not so impressed by buildings — and it may be argued that this is the India our sadhu brothers should envisage. Herein lies India's true talent and traditional destiny. Herein lies the hope of response to Naipaul's original pessimistic evaluations. It does not take special talent to organize schools, hospitals, and other humanitarian services. All advanced countries did so long ago, and all developing countries are doing so now. But what no other country could produce — almost in the space of a single century — is a Ramana Maharshi, an Ananda Mayi Ma, a Swami Brahmananda, a Swami Vivekananda, a Sri Sarada Devi, a Sri Ramakrishna, and the disciples they directly inspired.

Equally, the Ramakrishna sadhu must newly imagine himself. Let him meditate on the heart of a lion, as Swamiji told Ujjvala he himself did; or if not that, then on the example of Matteo Ricci, the Italian Jesuit who learned to be a perfect mandarin, so as to adequately present, to the Chinese, the message of his Master. Our Indian sadhu considers it risky to work in the West, hesitates to go to the trouble of learning a European language. Shame! Let him reflect on the American couple I describe in A Yankee and the Swamis who had courageously spent five years in South India mastering Tamil, in order to become effective Baptist missionaries in the province of Madras. Or let him think of his own ancestors who intrepidly took Hinduism to the southern seas. Should he serve in the West the Swami must remember that his primary responsibility is to the indigenous population. Although he may feel at ease with those individuals from his homeland who will inevitably be drawn to the center, he must not give the impression of favoring them or in essence fostering a Hindu temple catering to expatriate Indians.

The Ramakrishna sadhu's is a unique heritage, and despoiling it by spending his life and time as a white-collar executive, as a functionary, on managerial roles which many other educated and otherwise unemployed countrymen could do as well; such seems a waste of his special promise and perhaps disloyalty to his commitment. As a young sadhu asked me in India: "Is all I am good for is instructing a few of my countrymen in auto mechanics and radio repairing so that they can go out and get a good job?" I recall an embarrassing scene which occurred during the commencement exercises of our big industrial training school near Belur Math, the Sri Sarada Pith. The ceremony was held during the Vivekananda Centenary period, and Swami Prabhavananda was invited as honored guest. The Principal gave his report, proudly pointing out successes among the members of the graduating class. So many boys had placed highly on national examinations, so many had qualified for advanced study, so many were assured of good positions after leaving the institution. When Swami Prabhavananda got up to give his talk he congratulated the Principal on the year's academic record, but then went on to ask, before a suddenly silent audience: "And how many, among the products of this Ramakrishna school, have been inspired to renounce the world and become brahmacharis in our Order?"

One may imagine oneself as a successful careerist, or one may imagine oneself as the successor of a rishi. If I may be so bold as to say so, the Ramakrishna swami must now reimagine himself as fool of God and world servant, literally ready to do what he promises to do when he pronounces his vows. "The word sannyasin," said Vivekananda, "means divine outlaw, one might say, nihilist."


A book which claimed attention a few years ago in the United States and in Europe was The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler. Another was The Alternative Conspiracy. These are but two examples of futuristic writing whose ideas influenced and helped produce what finally became in 1992 the New Age movement. The ideas these books expressed were proliferated in countless other books, magazine articles, editorials, pamphlets, and underground reviews. The notion grew in the advanced countries of the world that the Industrial Age has developed so many faults that it must be replaced by another, variously termed the Aquarian Age or the era of the Whole Earth concept, or the epoch of the New Naturalism or of Environmentalism. What Toffler suggested is that the First Wave, the Agricultural Revolution, has risen and declined (although traces of it still remain in some Third World countries), to be followed by a Second Wave which he identifies as the Industrial Revolution. The Second Wave installed itself in the advanced nations two or three hundred years ago and has now nearly run its course — a wave whose arrival the so-called developing countries are just now looking forward to hopefully — much to the disquiet of some citizens who have already experienced it and found it counterproductive.

In the advanced countries, and that includes the former Soviet Union, and its satellites, the Second Wave is cresting out. And the Third Wave of — what shall we call it? — the Age of Wholesomeness? — is rising. While taking advantage of advanced technology, under Third Wave conditions, says Toffler, people will work less, live in simpler fashion close to the soil, pursue leisure more, and give far more attention than ever before to inner satisfactions, cultural pursuits, personal change and development, and something like the cultivation of the soul.

We have had foreshadowings of this trend for the past two or three decades, beginning with the hippie movement, the concerns of the French "enragés" (whom I describe in Section 8 of Chapter Ten), the passion of city dwellers to acquire country retreats, the popularity of tourism to remote and primitive areas, and the proliferation of self-improvement efforts by way of vegetarianism, positive thinking, naturalistic healing, religious dance, yoga and meditation; alternative medicine, and the like. I myself, and nearly all the persons mentioned in these pages, are examples of Third Wave converts, and this book is a Third Wave product. It may seem ironical that a country like India, still essentially a First Wave country moving into Second Wave status, should attract so many Third Wave enthusiasts. But no — passengers to India are going there in the search for Third Wave values.

And here we are faced with a further reason why the Ramakrishna Order swami must reimagine himself as Sannyasin Bold. Perhaps, perhaps he is the one who can reverse the unthinkable scenario which sees this beautiful world of ours reduced to an environmentalist graveyard. He has far more to tell the world than he known. What I had to say about Ramakrishna in Chapter Seven argues that the Master came as a forerunner of and prophet of the Third Wave age, the Incarnation of the Age of Wholesomeness. Ramakrishna's whole personality, his preoccupation with human values, with inner development, with the unity of life, and his rejection of commercialism of debilitating kinds, proclaim him a rebel against Second Wave values and a superb example of Third Wave aspirations. Listen to the words of the famous American writer Tom Wolfe, spoken in June 1988 at Harvard University: "If there happens to be some great philosopher in the making, capable of creating a higher synthesis on the order of Rousseau or a Jefferson that will light up the sky and lead mankind into a new era, never has there been a moment in history for such a person to succeed more brilliantly." Our Sannyasin Bold has only to emulate and to preach Ramakrishna, and a following, West or East, will appear of its own accord. "Do you not see?" asked Jesus, "that the fields are ripe, ready to be plucked?"

The church of the Third Wave religion and its meeting house will be the "forest dwelling" of anciet India, the 'desert" of Christ's earliest followers — in short, the ashrama. Swami Turiyananda foresaw this ninety years ago when he organized a band of early "cranks" to pioneer a forest life at Shanti Ashrama in central California. His expectations in 1900 read like a proclamation for today. And what he wanted then but couldn't carry out is only waiting to be put into effect now. Swami Vivekananda, impressed by the Greenacre experience in 1894, made some tentatives toward acquiring property in upper New York state for ashrama purposes; but his time was too short and the demands on him too various to get the project started. Yet his intentions were clear. I have already spoken of how he expressed himself to Swami Kripananda on the subject of ashramas.

Ideally an ashrama is a large property in the countryside, at a convenient distance from an important urban area and center of road, rail, and air travel. It provides living and working quarters for a good many people, plus a meeting hall and chapel. Devotees — yes, and this is important — non-devotees and potential devotees also — indeed, any suitable spiritual seeker — may come to the ashrama and there reside for longer or shorter periods.

Not all the underprivileged of this world, the deprived, the hungry, live in Third World countries. A great many of them reside in American or European high-rise apartment buildings or suburban bungalows, bombarded by lethal doses of TV programming, sensate advertising, and constant assurances that sex and money insure happiness. This diet of intellectual junkfood produces junkfood's predictable result — people satiated and at the same time undernourished and hungry.

The ashrama provides an alternative to this modern materialistic way of life. The ashrama should be open in permanence; those who live in the nearby city may spend their Sundays there, or week-ends. Those who live in surrounding areas may come annually or semi-annually for longer stays. The Centre Védantique Ramakrichna at Gretz, for example, draws from Paris and from all of France; and as well from Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy, and Spain. How we wish that we who direct the center or our guests or both possessed the Gift of Tongues in order that we might each understand the other in his own language — an inconvenience which ashramas in the USA can happily escape! One of the functions of the ashrana is to liberate interested people residing in the hinterland from having to learn their Vedanta simply through books. And an ashrama organized as I describe it helps overcome the difficulty we face always of there being too few Vedanta centers in the West.

Like the painted sculptures in medieval churches, the way of life followed in the ashrama can give a vivid object-lesson to today's spiritually illiterate on how life should be organized in this difficult century. Ashrama-ites can experience the attraction of a sane life, centered around a spiritual ideal, and learn to emulate it. The daily routine of the ashrama — the periods of meditation, the opportunities for manual work, the occasions it affords to absorb something about maintaining a shelter and producing food — can bring people back to fundamentals. There is much to be learned, as earlier generations knew, from contact with vegetables, fruit trees, domestic animals, bees. Contemplating a tree pursuing its seasonal changes, while visualizing the Intelligence which directs that cycle, can be as uplifting as a scriptural text. At Gretz our grounds have become a nature preserve, and although we are only twenty miles from the heart of Paris, wild creatures live in peace in our forest, including deer and foxes. Going to sleep to birdcalls is better than requiring tranquilizers.

I have not mentioned the program which can be carried out in the ashrama. But I am convinced that it should not be based primarily on verbal instruction. The charisma of the monastic leadership will hold everything together and give direction; while the regular sessions in the meditation hall will work their eventual magic of character change. Such a variety of people will come, possessing so many skills, having such fresh and youthful views, that a dynamic program will practically form of itself — from animal husbandry to organic gardening, from the study of music to the practice of relaxation techniques, from editing and the study of languages and scriptures to repairs and maintenance. Perhaps the most telling instruction will be imparted by the very atmosphere.

I am of course aware that some of our Western Vedanta centers already do what I an describing to a certain extent. Several maintain properties to which members go in the summer. Positive as such retreats are, these activities are not what I have in mind. They are of short duration and are generally limited to members of the center's in-group.

The model which I have outlined here can provide a real service for troubled men and women and should, if put into operation, result in a formidable expansion of Ramakrishna's influence. I say this on the basis of the Gretz experience. I often tell our boys, and the many devotees who take regular responsibilities for keeping things going, "It is true that you are not heroically doing famine relief or looking after orphans or serving in a hospital as so many of our members in India are doing. But in helping to make the ashrama well ordered, peaceful, and beautiful, so that our guests can be happy and comfortable here you are offering noble service of a different sort. The West has plenty of its own kind of disaster victims who require relief, too.'

If Sri Ramakrishna be the Third Wave prophet, his sadhu son must be the Third Wave priest. He will teach as his master taught and as Turiyananda taught, and as Vivekananda wanted to teach. He will eschew Second Wave strivings, go to the forest, and live a daily life as an exemplar and participant, close to the people. ". . . Ramakrishna," wrote Swamiji to Sturdy on 9 August, 1895, "has given us one great gift, the desire, and the lifelong struggle, not to talk alone, but to live the life." This is the reimagination I see emerging.

We hear that state and local governments in India would like and indeed are likely to take over — nationalize — and administer Ramakrishna Order humanitarian institutions. This happened in Burma and Sri Lanka and is constantly threatened in Bengal. Such seems to me to be a good thing and compatible with India's arrival at Second Wave proficiency; a desirable development since it will release Ramakrishna personnel for work as ashrama founders, as, if suitable, workers in the West. Swami Vivekananda's wish for his country, expressed so passionately a hundred years ago, that his homeland should experience a renaissance, has now been largely realized. India has been free and independent for nearly a half century. One may argue that it is for the civil authorities to carry forward the concerns which have until now burned up so much of our Order's available energy and manpower. Others of Swamiji's wishes, as I have tried to indicate, may now in their turn be given attention. The late Swami Vireswarananda remarked, in a speech given at the Bombay center on 18 February, 1978: "The message is more important than the social work done by the Mission." Amen.


E. M. Forster found in the theme of Walt Whitman's poem "A Passage to India" an attractive and an appropriate title for his novel. In that poem Whitman glorifies the idea of going to India to seek out its ancient, saving wisdom, a theme which Forster treated ironically, since he found in the India he saw much that was less than enlightening.

But the really remarkable lines in Whitman's song come in the closing verse, not sufficiently noticed, which passengers to India, Indians, and those inspired by India may well read and read again and take to heart:

Passage to more than India!
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go
And we will risk this ship, ourselves, and all.

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