Annapurna Sarada met Swami Aseshanandaji of the Ramakrishna Order at the Vedanta Society of Portland, Oregon, 30 years ago and felt she had come home. President of SRV Associations and an assistant teacher for the sangha and its children, her interview is the first in a two part series on Swami Vivekananda and his role in the world. The Second Part is an interview with Babaji Bob Kindler, the Spiritual Head of SRV Associations.
How were you drawn to Vedanta? What is its core message that has stayed with you?
In my childhood I was introduced to Vedantic teachings but in an incomplete way, leaving many unanswered questions and no actual method to follow. No one who shared those ideas had ever heard of Vedanta, the Upanisads, or knew about the Yoga Sutras, yet, partial expressions of those great ideas were percolating through other movements in the United States. In particular, that the soul and God are one; God is an impersonal formless Reality; and the personal God did not exist. These three partial teachings actually led to deep inner turmoil. Thus, when I was introduced to the Vedanta Society of Portland, Oregon, where Swami Aseshanandaji of the Ramakrishna Order was the minister, I finally felt I had arrived home.
First, I learned about Ishvara and Its philosophical relation to Brahman along with teachings like discrimination between the Eternal and noneternal, and received instructions for spiritual practice. This clarified so much, and my relief and joy at finding a path, a teacher, a personal divine Ideal, and the teachings on Brahman, was thrilling. That was over 30 years ago, and since then, my life revolves around spiritual practice and the sharing of Vedanta. The core teaching for me is the great siddhanta of ancient and modern rishis: Bramhan and Atman are one – and this is to be realized by sadhana, spiritual practice.
Do you think that our darshanas are a system of realising ourselves or are the philosophies guiding us for our roles in society? What were Vivekananda's thoughts on this?
From earliest times, India has held out the twin goals of abhyudaya (material well-being of all) and nihsreyasa (the highest/spiritual good of all); that is, communal earthly life should uphold and support the highest spiritual good (Atmajnan) as well as direct one to it. Swami Vivekananda enshrined this noble ideal in the motto of the Ramakrishna Order: For the realization of the Self and the good of the world. Whether we see the darshanas as pathways to Self-realization or philosophic guides to our conduct in the world really depends upon our temperament, karma, and desires. If we have desires for the world, then we follow the path of the purusharta-s, the Four Fruits of Life: dharma, artha, kama, and Moksha. Putting dharma first guides how we fulfill our legitimate earthly desires (wealth, family, etc.) on the way to Moksha. Putting dharma first means we have a daily transformative spiritual practice guided by a qualified preceptor. Swami Vivekananda emphasized integrating all four primary Yogas (selfless action, devotion, knowledge, and meditation). This requires practice. “Religion is realization,” he stated, and “there are books and temples by the hundreds, but oh for an ounce of practice.” (paraphrased) If and when we are finished with earthly desires, then we will follow the darshanas straight to Self-Realization.
What are the activities you enjoy doing in relation to Vedanta?
In service of my spiritual Ideals (Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda), I have the privilege of being the administrative head of the SRV Associations, an assistant to the Spiritual Director, Babaji Bob Kindler, and also an assistant dharma teacher. I am involved daily in different inspiring activities such as writing and proofing for our journal, Nectar of Non-Dual Truth, as well as books we are preparing to publish (like Footfalls of the Indian Rishis coming out this year!). We have just concluded 19 years of prison ministry in Oregon, which has been a tremendous learning experience. Each week I offer a meditation class at a local community center, serve as pujari at our weekly puja, and operate the video cameras for Babaji’s Sunday classes. Since he teaches some 7 retreats each year, I help oversee their coordination, and as my name might suggest, prepare meals for the students and also train them in this seva, karma yoga-style! All of this goes on around personal sadhana consisting of meditation and scripture study.
How has Swami Vivekananda's conception of 'Hinduism' helped Western society in understanding India, which for millennia sees itself only in terms of Dharma?
I do not think that Swami Vivekananda’s presentation of “Hinduism” has been able to fully shape modern Americans’ view of India. What he told Americans and Europeans during his visits here was a huge eye-opener for the people then. Unfortunately, there are too many cultural and religious biases or habits that get in the way of maintaining that conception over the many decades since he was here. Of course, those who attend Vedanta Societies, SRV Associations, or Chinmaya Missions, and such places, will receive a proper understanding. But for the broad masses of people, “Hinduism” doesn’t mean a comprehensive system of philosophical teachings, Wisdom, and spiritual practice. I think it only conjures up a confusing idea about all the gods and goddesses, the asanas of hatha yoga, or the social, political, and cultural issues that are currently problematic. For most, Yoga is only asana and rarely is there enquiry into the yamas and niyamas, the basic qualification in dharma (any spiritual life, really), or the higher limbs. Swami Vivekananda critiqued the Americans, if not the West in general, saying that we could not take in very large amounts of philosophy. So naturally, his presentation of the grand ideas of Hinduism, has been taken over by peoples’ desire for the simplistic, sensational, and the superficial. Dharma is a huge word to try to convey. Swami Vivekananda laid out the Four Yogas for us, which is both a simple and very profound approach to living a well-rounded spiritual life.
The original Darshanic spirit, which Sri Vivekananda embodied, was empirical, rational, atheistic or non-theistic, and examined everything. Today, much of this spirit has disappeared. How do we revive this in India and also introduce it to the West and elsewhere?
[“atheistic” for Western English speakers gives the wrong idea here. It means a firm belief in the non-existence of Divine Reality of any kind, not just “God/Ishvara”, but inclusive of Satchidananda too.]
I think, by “Dharshanic” spirit, you mean avid study and application in one’s life of India’s philosophical systems such as Sankhya, Yoga, Vedanta, etc. These three certainly have the ability to give suitable answers to all questions in relativity and beyond, so it is unfortunate that people do not naturally take to them. These three also leave room for science, while going far beyond science, which is something helpful to know for some people. At least, in India, there has been that darshanic spirit. In the West, we are practically starting from ground zero. There’s no cultural memory for this and people hear about Advaita and think they can hop right there without any darshanic training. In SRV Associations, we teach those three mentioned above and others too. Only a few stay for this deep training. There’s a view in the West that philosophic knowledge is just a bunch of details that clutter the mind. They want “silence,” “emptiness,” without preparing the mind for it. This is a great obstacle in generating the darshanic spirit over here.
There is also the danger of thinking that since Advaita, nondualism, represents the pinnacle of philosophical and spiritual Knowledge and requires a penetrating intellect, that all are suited to this and must aspire to it, qualified or not. Swami Vivekananda, like his master, Sri Ramakrishna, did not meddle with the inner dynamics of anyone’s spiritual unfolding. Rather, they supported and strengthened a person’s natural pathway, and where possible, helped them to yet a deeper understanding. Sri Krishna advises this approach in the Gita too, “Whatever form any devotee with faith wishes to worship, I make that faith of his steady.” 7:21
Among the many things he said for the good of India and the world, Vivekananda explained how people move from dualism, to qualified nondualism, and finally to nondualism (dvaita, vishistha advaita, advaita). On the way to Moksha, one rarely skips these steps, but illumined beings can and do use any one of these perspectives as their platform when teachings others, depending on their position on this spectrum. This is a wondrously universal view. And these three, he said, can be applied to all religions of the world and their followers. Promoting this practical and universal understanding could do much to relieve the problems between religions and schools of thought. But it would require that people stop thinking that only their watch keeps the correct time, as Sri Ramakrishna would say.
Raised in the U.S., I don’t think it is my place to say how to revive the darshanic spirit in India. I only hope that the various, universally-minded lineages and philosophical schools will put forth a great energy to give the dharma teachings (including cosmology, philosophy, and devotions) to the children and youth, inspiring them with the need to perform sadhana, so they will be the dharmic householders of the future who try to exemplify the teachings via daily practice and study, and bring their children with them to authentic preceptors. This will help the whole world, not just India.
For the West, then: What I see is a long road ahead where the different Vedantic organizations must try to reach the youth of this country and give them the foundations of:
• Indian Cosmology, Sankhya, which teaches the distinction between the Soul and nature, that nature (all perceptible phenomena) evolves and also involves;
• Which enables students to truly practice Yoga to gain control of senses, prana, and mind (all part of nature);
• and thus attain qualification to understand the philosophical approaches to Self-Knowledge (upper limbs of Yoga and Advaita Vedanta).
• Along the way, devotion to God (with or without form) must be nurtured, for this matures the ego and sweetens the process.
This is what SRV Associations is doing in great earnest to our capacity. It takes a lot of patience because the young people who show an interest are easily swallowed up by school and work, which show no mercy towards spiritual activities such as time for spiritual practice, attending a guru, or retreats. These young people may have samskara-s for dharma, but rarely have they been given any teachings or spiritual practices. They need time in ashrams and retreats. I dream of being able to offer these rare students a fully-funded year in one of our centers to focus on spiritual life alone. Lack of sufficient funding hampers this work of reaching out to the youth and ensuring their attendance. Spiritual organizations, ashrams, and centers need to be fully funded so they can do the work of teaching the dharma, and not because they do social work, which is the only way to get grants and matching donations in this country for religious groups.
In terms of the “big picture”: One of the glories of India has been the presence of the four stages of life - not only life as a student and then a householder, but also a consecrated stage of retirement into spiritual pursuits, and finally sannyas. These latter two stages ensure the continuity of spiritual culture. It has been said that it takes about 500 years of dharmic householder life in a society for the final 2 stages of life to become established. This is the long view we must take working in the West. Like the person who vowed to empty the ocean drop by drop with a feather, we must have that resolve as we go forward.
Over a hundred years ago, Swami Vivekananda stated that Westerners would need to teach Westerners. I think, in this country, that we are on the cusp of that time when there are a few authentic Western teachers (as in born and raised here, regardless of ethnic group) who are qualified for this work and who avoid sensationalism and personality cultism – both of which Swami Vivekananda eschewed and warned against. In particular, I mean that they know and can teach the darshanas and the scriptures from a deep and integrated level of understanding
How is Karma Yoga being misinterpreted in modern society to mean a life of action. Modern society rewards activity (especially the material kind). How does one find a balance?
For those who think they know what Karma Yoga is, this is very unfortunate. For such people I would share with them the Karma Yoga book by Swami Vivekananda, and also Sri Krishna’s teachings in the Bhagavad Gita, chapters 3 & 4. Plain and simple, if one works with attachment to the results, it is not Karma Yoga. If one doesn’t offer the fruits of their actions to their Chosen Ideal, it isn’t Karma Yoga. Attachment to results – money, fame, sense gratification, even altruistic aims – leads to karmic repercussions that must be satisfied, which results in more restless, karma-laden action. One cannot satisfy desires via work and attachment; it is like pouring oil on a fire to put it out. The only way out is detachment from the results and a daily spiritual practice that increases one’s ability to maintain a calm and steady mind. These teachings do not prevent the workers from holding good jobs and receiving compensation for work or serve altruistic ends, but the attitude in which action is performed and the results are received either neutralizes karma or increases karma. If one follows this simple rule sincerely, then a balance will come about naturally. Further, and very importantly, Karma Yoga by itself is insufficient. It must be integrated with meditation (even a little), and also study of scriptures like Gita and Upanisads or Vivekachudamani, and such practices that cultivate love for God or the inner Self. As my teacher, Swami Aseshanandaji would say, “An exemplar is necessary.” Holy Company is essential, otherwise, people imitate each other’s mistakes.
What does Yoga mean to students and practitioners of Vedanta today? The concept of Yoga runs through many Indian beliefs and texts. What is the role of Yoga in Vedanta?
Speaking as a member of the SRV sangha, Yoga means the Eight-Limbed system that Patanjali systematized. It also means spiritual practices that purify the mind of impediments and obstacles to Self-Realization, as well as any of the pathways leading to union with God, such as the Four Yogas that Swami Vivekananda highlighted, or the many listed in the Bhagavad Gita. At the highest level, it means union with Reality.
In terms of Vedanta, yoga is practice. Vedanta, basically, is realization. Vedanta’s famous sadhanachatustaya, the Four Qualifications of the Student (discrimination, detachment, inner peace, self-control, forbearance, contentment, concentration, faith, and a deep yearning for Liberation) cannot be gained except via spiritual practices like those covered in the Four Yogas, which Swami Vivekananda called the Religion of this age. Patanjala Yoga, with its ten yamas and niyamas is included in those four.How can Vedanta solve the most pressing problems of Humanity today?
Vedanta has already solved these problems. This is not a flippant answer, but a practical and sobering one. The illumined beings tell us again and again, that “All is Brahman.” But Brahman is not the objects we see; It is the Essence of everything. Brahman satya; jagad mithya (Brahman is Real, the world is not.) The seers have also proved that one cannot solve or fix maya, the world; it has to be transcended. Vedanta leads the sincere practitioner to identification with the Witness and ultimately into union with ultimate Reality/Brahman. There’s no world to fix there. So, Vedanta is not going to solve the problems of the world from the standpoint of the world.
However, the practices leading to realization of the truths of Vedanta naturally increase harmony among beings and sensitivity to the environment. Self-control, nonviolence, truthfulness, non-acquisitiveness; giving up anger, greed, jealousy, pride, lust; practicing seeing God in all beings and being generous, and importantly, engaging in one’s daily spiritual practices – these basic practices have to be re-inculcated in society at all levels. Even then, the world is a place of duality: solve one problem and another takes its place. So, Karma Yoga, selfless action/nonattachment to results, has to be the protocol for all who wish to serve God in humankind, whether they be serving via religion, humanitarianism, activism, academics, technology, service industries, and other enterprises.