Vedanta in The West: an interview with Swami Chetanananda

Swami Chetanananda, a monk in the Ramakrishna Order, has been serving as the Minister of the Vedanta Society of Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri since 1950. He previously held positions in Advaita Ashrama’s publication and editorial departments.

He served as the Inter-Religious Council of Southern California’s Vice President and is currently a cabinet member of the Interfaith Partnership of St. Louis. In 1978, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he worked as the Assistant Minister for the Vedanta Society. After Swami Satprakashananda’s death, he became the Society’s Minister in 1980. He also serves as the minister of the Kansas City Vedanta Society. His extensive spiritual experience inspired Kajingshai to interview him for publication in the Across Boundaries section.

KJ: Could you please share your experiences as a minister at the Vedanta Society of St. Louis and the activities of the centre?
SC: The Vedanta Society of St. Louis was started by Swami Satprakashananda, a disciple of Swami Brahmananda, in 1938. He was a very learned monk, and he met Holy Mother, Swami Vivekananda, and several direct disciples. The swami passed away in 1979.
I came to Hollywood in 1971 and worked with Swami Prabhavananda for five years. I was transferred to St. Louis in 1978 to assist Swami Satprakashananda, who was then bedridden. I lived with him for nearly two years.

Swami Vivekananda brought Vedanta (or Hinduism) to the West in 1893; later, five disciples of Ramakrishna came to the West to preach Vedanta. The teachings of Vedanta are very appealing to the American people, especially for two reasons. First, they love democracy, and the Vedantic concept of God is a democratic concept of God: each soul is divine. Second, they love freedom. It is as if the Statue of Liberty in the New York harbour is their chosen deity. The goal of Vedanta philosophy is jivan-mukti (“free while living”). Freedom is the song of the soul.
Ramakrishna monks have been spreading the messages of Vedanta and Ramakrishna in the West for the last 130 years. I have been working in this country for 52 years. Our St. Louis centre has various activities, such as daily worship and arati, lectures and classes, publications and a bookshop, interfaith meetings and interviews with students, and a spiritual ministry.
KJ: What are the Indian values that you believe should drive the 21st-century world? With technological advancements and Westernization, people seem to be drifting away from their culture, food, and traditions.
SC: India was under foreign rule for 1,000 years – Muslims ruled for 700 years; and the British, French, and Portuguese for a total of 300 years. Now India is a free nation and making tremendous progress in the fields of Economy and Technology. Behind all this spectacular progress, India should not forget her eternal values, which Swamiji reminded us of in his Lectures from Colombo to Almora. Material prosperity cannot bring peace and bliss in life; one cannot buy them in the market either. They come from spiritual life. Ramakrishna said that kamini-kanchan (lust and gold) cannot give happiness. This truth has been tested by many nations of the world, and some are now experimenting with it. India demonstrated the eternal values of renunciation and service in a changing society. Swamiji said that these are our national ideals: Renounce your ego and selfishness, and serve human beings as God. This is the religion of this age and the way one can find fulfillment in life. Swamiji said: They only live who live for others. I hope Indian people will listen to Swamiji and eventually will move in that direction.
When we study religion in the world, we find that the main focus in the 19th century was reasoning. People tried to understand God through reasoning. In the 20th century, the main focus of religion was humanism. People asked: If religion cannot bring happiness, what good is that religion? In the 21st century, I believe that the main focus of religion will be mysticism. People say that we have read enough, heard enough, and seen enough – now we want experience. In this context, Ramakrishna and our age-old Vedantic tradition will play an important role.
In 1992, I was invited by the School of Contemporary Mysticism in Avila, Spain, St. Teresa’s birthplace. I spoke on Ramakrishna’s spiritual experiences.
KJ: In the context of the Harmony of Religions, what universal moral ethics should every religion stress to maintain harmony in society?
SC: The seed of the harmony of religions is in the Rig Veda, Bhagavad Gita, and Shivamahimnah Stotra. But Sri Ramakrishna demonstrated that wonderful ideal in his life by practising Christianity and Islam along with Hinduism. He realized God in the Hindu way and then through other religions. No one, except for Sri Ramakrishna, has ever done that in the religious history of the world. His unique message was Jato mat tato path – as many faiths, so many paths. Do not quarrel about religion. Nowadays, we find that “Inter-religious Councils,” “Interfaith Partnerships,” and similar organizations are springing up in many cities in the Western world. This phenomenon started after the advent of Ramakrishna and after the Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893. In America, Swamiji gave a few lectures on ‘The Ideals of Universal Religion.’
I remember an incident that took place in St. Louis in 1980s. The local TV station interviewed me on Vedanta religion. The interviewer was Catholic. He asked me: “Swami, are the Hindu God, Christian God, Muslim God, and Jewish God different?”
I answered: “When the sun rises, can you say it a Hindu sun, Christian sun, Muslim sun, or Jewish sun? Can you put any stamp on the sun?”
The interviewer replied: “Swami, I have my answer.”
Swamiji spoke of universal moral ethics in his last lecture in the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893:
The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance: “Help and not Fight,” “Assimilation and not Destruction,” “Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.”
KJ: With growing wealth and prosperity in the middle class, many young people are skeptical about spiritual messages. They believe that unlike science, spiritual truths cannot be verified. How can they be convinced otherwise?
SC: It is true that nowadays the young generation are less interested in religion. In the West also, very few people go to church. Atheists, agnostics, and skeptics are not enemies of religion. They keep religion alive. They are true enemies of religion who are apathetic toward religion. Anyhow, when they are in trouble, they look upward and ask for help from God.
You see, Vedanta is a scientific religion. The method of science is experimentation, verification, and conclusion. Vedantic truths have been tested, verified, and then accepted. I think that those who complain against the Vedantic religion have never practised it.
There are two complains against Vedanta: first, it is dry; and second, it is difficult. You see, the subject matter of Vedanta is Satchidanada – existence, knowledge, and bliss. It is hard to believe that the blissful Brahman is dry. Those who complain that Vedanta is difficult, they never sincerely tried to understand this wonderful philosophy. If you want to get milk and kernel of the coconut, you will have to break the shell.
KJ: : RKM Shillong is fortunate to have had Revered Bhuteshanandaji Maharaj as the First Secretary, and several other great monks (such as Rev. Gahananandaji, Prameyanandaji and others) have contributed to the growth of the Shillong ashrama. Please share any reminiscences about RKM Shillong and your association with these monks.
SC: I have nothing to say at present.
KJ: Can you mention one incident from the recent discoveries about Swamiji’s travels/works?
SC: Some years ago, I got the script of Swamiji’s reminiscences by Mrs. Hansbrough from the Vedanta Society of San Francisco. I edited it and sent it to Prabuddha Bharata for publication. Then I translated it into Bengali, and this was published in Udbodhan magazine and later incorporated into Bahurupe Vivekananda. I found many interesting episodes concerning Swamiji in it, especially his human aspect. Let me tell you one incident.
Ralph was a son of Mrs. Wycoff, one of the Mead sisters who were devoted to Swamiji. He lived in their house in Pasadena for a few weeks in 1900. Ralph was then a teenaged boy and devoted to Swamiji.
One day Swamiji said: “Ralph, God is so near to us, but people do not see Him.”
Ralph: “Why, Swamiji?”
Swamiji: “You see everything with your eyes. Can you see your own eyes?”
Ralph: “No, Swamiji.” (After a pause) “But I can see my eyes in a mirror.”
Swamiji: “Ralph, that is the answer. If you have a pure, clean mind, you can see God right now.”
It is amazing that Swamiji did not quote any scripture or give a long talk to this American boy. He just convinced a young American by using a common example. Jesus said: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” It was said 2000 years ago and still it is a gospel truth. Our Upanishadic teachings are four to five thousand years old, still they are true. Truth never becomes old
Thank you,
Swami Chetanananda, Laguna Beach, California, 26. 8. 23

Ruth Harris on ‘Guru to the World’

Ruth Harris has written a new book [“Guru to the World: Life and Legacy of Vivekananda,” Harvard University Press, October 2022] that examines Vivekananda’s life through his transformative relationships and the impact he had on transforming the Western understanding of spirituality and the global perspective as a whole.

Ka Jingshai (KJ) was in conversation with Prof Ruth Harris (RH). Here is an abridged version of the interview, which can be found in full at

KJ: Your book about Vivekananda covers the importance of his philosophy from multiple perspectives in an interesting way. How did you discover Vivekananda, and why you decided to switch genres in your writing?

RH: Well, there are two things. On one level, it was a shift, a tremendous shift, and I had to spend 8-10 years doing the book because I had no background. On another level, it wasn’t because I came to it through French history. I was reading about the relationship between Romain Rolland and Gandhi and picked up two other books he wrote. One on Ramakrishna (La Vie De Ramakrishna), and the other on Vivekananda ( La Vie De Vivekananda). It’s that book that got me started. 

The second reason is that people like Vivekananda came from the colonial and imperial world to the west, but they shaped our views and shifted our perceptions. Also, I wanted to explore why somebody like Vivekananda had such an impact outside of India before he returned to India. I began to read letters, and I got a sense of him as a human being. That was very enticing.

KJ: When you read him first, what really struck you? 

RH: What struck me about him was his capacity to express very harsh, fundamental truths through wit and humour, especially to his western audience and, at the same time, his openness to their preoccupations. I was stunned by this because he could have been very angry. There were times when he said, ‘Please, don’t speak of us as heathens, don’t offer us stones when we need food.’ It was also his cultural ambidexterity that he could engage in any of the discussions Westerners were interested in. That struck me, and so did the first woman who dealt with him. He could talk about many things, and I began to think, ‘what does it mean for somebody like this, to so many different people, that he had to encompass all this learning and ability to communicate?’

KJ: Did you ever feel like ‘let me write on the Guru of Vivekananda?’

RH: Well, I have to say, of all the things I wrote, the chapter on Sri Ramakrishna was the most difficult. As a Westerner not brought up in this tradition, I had read the gospel of Ramakrishna, and I began to think of how difficult it is to convey the message of Ramakrishna. I was trying to understand, but we get that message only through devotees completely changed by his presence. We get an extraordinary sense of his charisma, humanity, and capacity to touch people with different psychological makeups. 

The story of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda is often told as a story of opposites, but it’s superficial opposites. Certainly, Ramakrishna comes across as  Bhakta, Vivekananda as sceptical Jnani. But underneath, it was Ramakrishna’s wisdom that he was learning. Vivekananda himself said, ‘I am a bhakta’. It is a complex and transformational relationship; I think Ramakrishna understands that you need somebody who can communicate in the wider world; the savviness of somebody like Ramakrishna really impressed me. 

Finally, I found out how he insisted on being a baby and said that innocence and play of babyhood are authentic Atman. He acknowledges Vivekananda’s intelligence; when he reasons too much, he says, ‘you must go beyond that.’ This is something that he used when he was speaking to his audience. It wasn’t just the rational Vivekananda that they loved.

KJ: What thoughts made you think that the concept of ‘Swami Vivekananda and America’ needs a new light? 

RH: There was a personal dimension here in a weird way. It brought many things together for me. Of course, I am American, ended up in Britain, and married an Englishman. It was interesting that working on Vivekananda brought my American, British and Indian friends together. 

Most of my American friends said, ‘we’re growing up; we’re not religious; we’re spiritual.’ I thought, ‘Where does that come from?’ Many of them were Jewish or Christian. But they all think of themselves as spiritual. Yet, they knew on some level that many of the ideas around spirituality they professed came from some vision of yoga or India. 

I realized that people had not grasped the connection between Vivekananda and William James, who was considered in America to be the founder of psychology. Romain Rolland, in  his discussion of Vivekananda, writes about William James. He recognizes that Vivekananda is part of a greater shift in views of self-consciousness and religious experience. I read some of his correspondence and realized that he was having a debate with Vivekananda. He does not accept Hinduism. He still thinks of it in very orientalist terms as metaphysical and transcendent, but not based on science.

KJ: It’s intriguing that you present and understand Indian ethos so delicately in this book. How challenging was that? 

RH: I can’t tell you. In the fourth year, I began to despair. I thought, ‘Oh, this time, I’ve bitten off too much. This time, I’m going to get into trouble.’ That’s because I could not understand, but I was working hard. I was raised in a Jewish tradition and spent a year working on Catholicism to learn about the Virgin Mary. 

I think the change came when I listened to a good translation of the Gita. When you begin to understand what it is, for Arjuna not to defend his family and his relations because of his Dharma, when Indian families mean so much. The sacrifice is extraordinary for the higher ethos I began to appreciate. 

Interestingly, many of my Indian friends began to recognize that we really can’t understand politics, and of course, the Indian anti-colonial struggle without religion. I had been working on religion and science for many years, but what I was doing on Vivekananda was different. It was in exchanges with my friends that I began to get an idea. I tried to be delicate, I’m not sure I always managed. 

I tried to use my historical imagination to enter into the world I was looking at. I realized that people pick and choose from Vivekananda. But the world he lived in was not like ours. We have to understand that it was a world of theosophy, spiritualism and Christian science. 

KJ: In Vivekananda’s writings and speeches, there seems to be a convergence between modern science and Vedanta. He also cautioned against superstitious beliefs in both science and religion. What is the main lesson to be learned from these opposing ideas?

RH: What he’s saying is don’t accept claims from either religion or science as blanket claims. Each individual must find her own path through intellectual understanding. Vivekananda globalizes Hinduism, he engages in debates, and he’s provocative. The Orthodox didn’t accept what he was doing. There are those who disagree with his vision of the relationship of Karma Yoga with Advaita. There are others who do not want to give up rituals. He never said you had to give up anything. He wanted people to question. Though he did prioritize Advaita above other forms, he never lost sight of the fact that Ramakrishna had achieved everything spiritually through Kali.

KJ: Do you think Swami Vivekananda, in a sense, was more unique in his approach than Ramakrishna?

RH: It is not that, that he isn’t unique; Ramakrishna is utterly unique. He’s not like anybody I’ve ever encountered, he’s remarkable. But what I’m saying is that Vivekananda becomes a global figure, he goes to Chicago, he does all those things that Ramakrishna could never engage with.

In his encounter with Ramakrishna, he wants to see God. Vivekananda has this mystical sense and he knows, that it was Ramakrishna who can do that. That’s when he accepts Ramakrishna. It’s a spiritual reconciliation of the highest order. I think that’s partially why he hopes to bring reconciliation when he goes to America. But he’s also savvy, he needs to impress them, he also acknowledges that there are dynamics of power that have to shift. He scolds the people in the West. He says, ‘You’re brutal, you’re materialistic. You don’t listen, you don’t see yourselves.’ When he comes back to India, he says, ‘You’re timid, you’re quarrelsome. you must learn self-reliance, commit yourself to practical Vedanta.’ Like a good Guru, he says different things to different audiences. Despite that, I don’t think that there are two Vivekanandas. He wishes he was back with Ramakrishna, but he has to shift his whole rhythm and psyche and it’s exhausting. That’s why his women friends in America, worry about him all the time, they see he’s exhausted.

KJ: Do you believe that the mental pressure and stress Vivekananda experienced was due to the obstacles and superstitious beliefs that he had to overcome?

RH: I do think it was very exhausting, it’s again that human capacity to acknowledge his weaknesses that I got attracted to him, that he wasn’t a Superman. That he not being a Superman, he’s extraordinary. He talks about ‘The imitation of Christ.’ You can imitate Christ, he says, be Christ, be better than Christ. But he doesn’t want Indians to imitate the British; he wants them to be Indian. How do you take the world, the universal, while remaining authentically yourself? That’s his message for individuals and nations.

KJ: How do you think these ideas about blending experience and reason are influencing the modern thought currents of the West? 

RH: In this connection, we may remember his discussion with William James. They all were trying to blend experience and reason. When people say in America, I’m not religious, I’m spiritual, what they’re trying to say is, I think, ‘we’re not superstitious, we don’t belong to these old ideas, but we are open to many different paths.’ 

He was interested in creating a Vedantic science, but he himself could not do that. He was interested in the idea that people would see the cosmic and the mundane together. They found it difficult because they think the universality is European rationality. But when science comes to India, it doesn’t shift. People are interested in science, but many continue to have their spiritual preoccupations.

In the West, there was a split. By the end of the 19th century, there was a revolt against these ideas and Vivekananda slots into those discussions. What’s interesting about Vivekananda is he believes in evolution, but he doesn’t believe that natural selection has a role in the higher mental and psychological faculties. Even Darwin’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace, would have agreed with Vivekananda. 

KJ: There is a popular trend of using science to justify every religious ritual or practice. What was Vivekananda’s stance on this matter?

RH: Vivekananda wanted everyone to find his or her own way. He didn’t think that real spirituality was the miraculous. He encouraged people not to search for ‘getting powers or being miraculous’ He thought that a more enduring spirituality was based on perseverance and disciplined search. 

I think he’d learned that from Ramakrishna, and that’s why I begin that chapter by talking about how Ramakrishna has throat cancer and his disciples want him to cure himself, and Ramakrishna says, ‘I can’t ask for that. As I spent all my time explaining that the body is nothing.’

These are things that Vivekananda knew and tried to convey to his American devotees. 

One of the things about my book is to show how the vision of science changes very much over time. I still think that we have an overinflated view of science. It can explain some aspects of the world but not everything.

KJ: In your treatment of disciples of Swami Vivekananda, you have dealt with the Indians, the Americans and the British separately. Were their perceptions of Vivekananda different during his time? How do you look at this when the world is considered just one village?

RH: Absolutely. I mean, even though it is one village. In India, there are many who view Vivekananda through the eyes of family tradition; it’s there in the bone. Yet everyone has a different view in India of Vivekananda. 

In America and in Britain, it’s again, different because they see Vivekananda as basically the door opener to all these Indian ideas. I was trying to get them to understand that there’s a background to why he came to America. 

That Chicago thing is important because America is not yet an imperial power, it will be in 1898, five years after the Parliament. He’s glad to be in America because he speaks English but doesn’t have to deal with colonists. In Britain, people have heard of Vivekananda but don’t think of him through an imperial lens. They think of him as the founder of yoga. That’s what many people have heard of Vivekananda, but they don’t realize that he has had such a powerful afterlife in Indian society.

KJ: After reading Swami Vivekananda’s teachings on Vedanta, the concept of Self, Atman, and oneness, as a Westerner, how revolutionary were those ideas for you to comprehend?

RH: Yes, it really was revolutionary. But I also have to say what I loved about reading these high flights of Hindu metaphysical thought was how he joined them to stories.

First, I only understood the parable side, and then, with time, I began to investigate the other side. I spent so much time reading about American women because I was like the American women. But also because I’ve lived in Britain so long, I was like Margaret Noble.  Again the relationship between universalism and particularity is a very important issue for the Jews, the relationship between love and longing for spirituality. 

Vivekananda has been spoken about as a great cosmopolitan or a great globalist. But I think, after the pandemic, we realized that it’s not so easy when we are a village on one level, but we’re also highly fragmented. 

KJ: Vivekananda was many things to many people. Ruth, why did you want to attribute the word Guru to him?

RH: It’s very simple. I was saying that he was trying to be a guru to the world. But I also was trying to explain that India was often placed in that position. But rather than being easy to do, it’s also problematic because the idea that India is spiritual and the West is materialistic is basically a cliche.

We know that Indians are not purely spiritual and that Westerners are not purely materialistic. So while he enters into the Western world, by presenting himself as a guru to the world, he’s also constrained by these very categories that don’t allow people to step outside the box. I think that’s a great paradox for him.

I think it’s, if you don’t mind my saying, because I’m not Indian, it remains a great paradox for India today because India wants to be a world teacher, but it’s not always true that people do it that way. I wanted to explore that paradox honestly and with generosity.

KJ:  You mentioned that the book’s purpose evolved over time. Have you ever travelled to India, and if so, for what reason?

RH: I did. I went to the archives, and I did everything. I also went all over America to look at archives. I was in St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston. I, of course, went to Calcutta, to Belur Math. I had to go to all these places. Because if you don’t have a sense of place, you can’t understand and, when you go and visit people, they give you bits of history. They give you their memories, what has been passed down to them, and you learn a lot.

KJ: Do you think Vivekananda’s philosophy should be taught to school or college students for a better world tomorrow?

RH: I think it would be very interesting to have some aspects of his work on universalism and diversity in the curriculum in our schools. In England, there is teaching in Christianity. But there’s also a lot of emphasis on religious studies, and now they’re starting to do courses on Hinduism.

 I would recommend reading ‘Practical Vedanta’, the lectures in London, where he describes that everything can be in the service of this Self that is God, even in the most humble things.

Professor Ruth Harris is a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls’ College and a Professor of Modern History at the Oxford University. She has been awarded Guggenheim Fellowship and Wolfson History Prize and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy. She has published widely in the history of science and medicine, the history of gender and religion, and the history of politics and emotion.

Does Humanity Have a Future?:The Need for a Philosophy of Universal Acceptance

Jeffery D. Long
With each passing day, it seems that our world becomes a more dangerous and frightening place. There is of course the coronavirus, as well as the wider environmental crisis that has given rise to it. And then there are conflicts between human beings of different religions, nationalities, and ethnic groups. One may be tempted to ask if humanity has a future, given all of these many, very serious problems that we all face. One might even go further and ask if humanity deserves to have a future, given that we have ourselves created the problems that we are experiencing. For young people, especially, who did not create these problems, but are inheriting problems that are the result of poor decision making by older generations, the issue of survival is particularly urgent.

Yet, in the midst of all of these problems, we see cause for hope. The coronavirus is a very serious issue, but, like all the diseases that have ravaged humanity in the past, it will one day be cured or managed. While our environmental issues are also quite grave, there are also innovative technologies being developed and new ways of organizing ourselves economically that are being imagined which have the potential to show the way out of this dire situation. And in the midst of even the worst conflicts across communities, one finds pockets of sanity, in which members of one community will rescue members of the other community from the violence that threatens them. In my own country, the United States, where there are, as I am writing this, massive protests against racism and violence carried out by the police, there are also police who support these protests, so long as they are peaceful, and who themselves wish to see a society free from racial prejudice.
There is reason for hope because, if human beings have created the problems that we now face, it is also human beings who will develop the means for solving them. We are a species with great potential both for creation and for destruction. We have been tremendously destructive, but have also been tremendously creative as well. It is our positive creativity, which, in the Vedanta tradition is seen to be a manifestation of our inner divinity, that has the ability to save the day.
Focusing specifically on conflict across belief systems and ethnic and national groups, two of the greatest visionaries of history, who had the capacity to perceive how we might all learn to co-exist, were Swami Vivekananda, and his teacher, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
Swami Vivekananda, or Swamiji, who was the first Indian spiritual teacher to travel to the Western world in the modern era to share the wisdom of Vedanta with Americans and Europeans, taught a vision of what he called “universal acceptance.” In his famous welcome address, given at the World Parliament of Religions, which was held in Chicago in 1893, he proclaimed his pride in belonging “to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”1
Two important things need to be noted about Swami Vivekananda’s teaching of universal acceptance. First, there is the distinction between acceptance and tolerance. Secondly, there is the question of what it means to accept all religions as true.
I have asked my students on many occasions, “If your friend, or a beloved family member, said to you today, ‘I tolerate you, ’ how would you feel?” Tolerance is, of course, much better than intolerance. If someone is intolerant, it means that they cannot even stand our existence. They are so hostile to us–perhaps because of our beliefs, or our appearance, or our language, or our ethnic origin–that they truly wish that we did not exist. They cannot tolerate the fact that there are people who are different from themselves.
But tolerance is not the highest ideal to which we can aspire. If we are tolerated, it is as if we are merely being allowed to exist. It does not mean that our existence is a cause for rejoicing. It is more like the person who tolerates us would rather we were not there, but they are not going to act on that feeling. Swamiji understood this very well. He said, in another one of his lectures, “Why should I tolerate? Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live. Is it not a blasphemy to think that you and I are allowing others to live?”2 Who am I, and who are you, to say that one person or another deserves to live, or does not deserve to live?
Tolerance, again, is better than intolerance. It is certainly much better to ‘allow’ people to live than not to allow them to live: to murder them. But even this sense of ‘allowing’ another to live falls far short of the highest ideal which we are capable of achieving. Can we not do something more than not murdering others? What is this ideal? This is the ideal which Swami Vivekananda calls acceptance, saying, “I believe in acceptance.”3
What does acceptance mean? Swamiji elaborates upon it as follows:
I accept all religions that were in the past, and worship with them all; I worship God with every one of them, in whatever form they worship Him. I shall go to the mosque…I shall enter the Christian’s church and kneel before the crucifix; I shall enter the Buddhistic temple, where I shall take refuge in Buddha and in his Law. I shall go into the forest and sit down in meditation with the Hindu, who is trying to see the Light which enlightens the heart of every one. Not only shall I do all these, but I shall keep my heart open for all that may come in the future.”4
Acceptance, particularly in regard to different religions, involves seeing different paths not as rival ways of being with which one is in competition, but as many paths to the same ultimate goal. This is rooted in the teaching of Swami Vivekananda’s guru, Sri Ramakrishna, who himself practiced a wide array of spiritual disciplines, drawing from many diverse traditions, and found that each of the paths that he followed led to the experience of samādhī, or absorption in the divine:
I have practiced…all religions–Hinduism, Islam, Christianity–and I have also followed the paths of the different Hindu sects. I have found that it is the same God toward whom all are directing their steps, though along different paths…Wherever I look, I see men quarrelling in the name of religion…But they never reflect that He who is called Krishna is also called Śiva, and bears the name of the Primal Energy, Jesus, and Āllāh as well–the same Rāma with a thousand names.5
How is it possible, though, to accept many paths as true, given the real differences amongst the world’s religions? Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, for example, believe in rebirth, while in the Christian and Islamic traditions, this idea is denied. How can both understandings be true?
Universal acceptance does not mean that one necessarily must believe everything taught in every religion. This is clearly not possible, given the contradictions among religious worldviews. It does mean, though, that one is open to the particular perspective on truth which a given religion expresses. Each religion captures a different aspect of reality, much like the different parts of the elephant grasped by the various blind men in the famous Indian metaphor of the blind men and the elephant. The important thing, according to Sri Ramakrishna, is that the practice of any religion can be effective in helping one advance toward God realization. This does not mean the religion has to be true in every single respect, but that its core values and its basic orientation toward infinite Reality enable the practitioner to be transformed: to overcome ego and to realize the true, divine Self within.
Does humanity have a future? This will depend on our choices, in the present moment and in the years to come. We need to reduce our greed and attachment to material comfort and work for an ecological state in which all beings, and not only human beings, can thrive and flourish. We need to change many of our habits, and move from a state of ego-centeredness, or even national-centeredness (which can be a mere extension of the ego), to a state of cosmic consciousness. And we need to see one another’s religions and perspectives as alternate paths, alternate views of reality from which we can learn, and ways to realization in their own right, and not as rivals.
If the philosophy of universal acceptance taught by Swami Vivekananda–and lived out to its fullest extent by Sri Ramakrishna, with his practice of many paths–were to be widely adopted worldwide, then there would be good reason to hope for the future of humanity and a peaceful world.
Swami Vivekananda, Complete Works, Volume One (Mayavati: Advaita Ashrama, 1979).
Swami Nikhilananda, trans. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (New York: Ramakrishna Vivekananda Center, 1942).

Jeffery D. Long is a religious studies scholar who works on the religions and philosophies of India, particularly Hinduism and Jainism. He is a professor of religion and Asian studies at Elizabethtown College.
Dr. Long is associated with the Vedanta Society, DĀNAM (the Dharma Academy of North America). A major theme of his work is religious pluralism. Dr. Long has authored several books.

Back to Spring 2021

How I Came to Sri Ramakrishna

“And when you die and go to hell, it’s going to be for all eternity. You’ll be tortured there forever. ” To say I was shocked when I heard these words, coming from the mouth of the cousin of a good friend of mine while we were all playing cards together, would be an understatement. I was thirteen years old at the time. My friend’s cousin was an adult, and children of course tend to take what an adult says very seriously. My friend, who was also thirteen, had invited a few of us to join his extended family on a weekend camping trip. We were all having a wonderful time. At one point, a few of us sat down together for a friendly card game. As we played, the conversation had moved to the topic of religion.
All of this occurred in the rural countryside of Missouri, a state in America that has a large population of very conservative Protestant Christians. I was raised Roman Catholic, which made me religiously different from many of my friends and classmates. This difference had never been raised as an issue, until this fateful card game.
A couple of years before the “card game from hell, ” my father had been injured in a truck accident. He was hospitalized for many months, and then he was sent home, where my mother and I cared for him. His injury eventually led to his death, which happened when I was twelve years of age (one year before the camping trip and card game I have just mentioned).

During my father’s ordeal, and following his passing, I had begun to study the religions of the world. While I was still a devout Catholic, I also had an open mind, and wanted to know what many traditions and philosophies had to say about the big questions of life. What happens after we die? Why do we suffer? Does life have a purpose at all?
I was especially focused on the question of the afterlife. I was convinced that my father did not simply cease to exist when his body ceased to function. Indeed, as I saw him suffer through his many profound injuries, I became firmly convinced that we are not this body. If the body can become a prison, as my father’s had, or if it can turn against us, as it does in the case of someone with cancer, then it is something other than us. We are beings of consciousness who experience through the body, but we are not the body. And, not being the body, our existence could well be independent of it.
And indeed, this is what I was taught in the Catholic Church: that the soul and body are distinct, and that the soul continues to another destination after death. Like all Christian traditions, Catholicism teaches that souls in a state of grace reside forever in heaven with God after death, and that souls that are in a state of sin are punished forever in hell. The Catholic Church also has the view that there are souls who enter a third state, called purgatory, which is preparatory to life in heaven, where we are purified of our remaining imperfections.

There were aspects of this view, though, that troubled me. First, I did not feel that I knew of anyone who was so good as to deserve an eternity in heaven, or so evil as to deserve an eternity of punishment in hell. Eternity is a long time: forever. In fact, this was the topic under discussion when my friend’s cousin told me I was going to hell.
Secondly, the concept of hell itself made no sense to me at all. Whenever my parents had to punish me as a child, it was to teach me a lesson, so I would not make the same mistake again, and would do better next time. But an eternal punishment can have no end. It does not improve us. We just suffer forever. What kind of God would inflict an eternal punishment, with no purpose? And if God is all knowing and is our creator, this would mean that God, with full foreknowledge that we would be punished for eternity, went ahead and created us anyway, allowing us to live in a state of sin and then suffering forever. Such a God, in effect, creates beings precisely to punish them for eternity. This is a sadistic, hateful being, and not the God of love taught by Jesus.
The concept of purgatory made a great deal of sense to me, because it acknowledged that most of us are neither wholly good nor wholly evil. Most of the people I have encountered in my life are basically good, but imperfect. They typically do not seek to do harm willfully. I would say this of myself as well.
The problem with purgatory, though, was that it led me to the question, “If we still have imperfections that we need to work out after death, what was the point of this life? What were we doing here, if not working toward greater perfection?” The idea formed in my mind that perhaps we are already in purgatory: that we keep coming back, life after life, and gradually improve until we finally reach perfection and are received into the presence of God.
As I began to learn about the world’s religions, I found this idea echoed in the teachings of traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism: the idea of karma and rebirth, and an ultimate liberation from this process. This rang true to me as being consistent with my experience, with logic, and with the idea of a God who is both loving and just. We need to work out our imperfections. There is no free way out. But we have as many second chances as we need in order to do this.
I was especially drawn to India, and to Hindu traditions in particular, through seeing the movie Gandhi and through listening to the music of the Beatles, especially George Harrison, who was deeply influenced by Hindu traditions and teachings, having been prominently connected to both Transcendental Meditation and ISKCON, as well as the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda and Swami Vivekananda (whose Raja Yoga he read during a holiday in India in 1966). In both the writings of Gandhi and the music and lyrics of George Harrison, I saw references to the Bhagavad Gita. I thought, “This sounds like a very wise book. I need to find this book! ”
Around this same time, I went with my Grandmother to a local market that was being held in the parking lot of a church (the Methodist Church in our small Missouri town). I accompanied Grandma to many such markets, usually in search of old science fiction novels and comic books. But at this particular market, which I attended around the age of thirteen, I walked to a table with a lot of books and magazines and found, on top of the pile: the Bhagavad Gita! It was a turning point in my life, as I had been thinking of this book but did not know how to go about finding it. I felt almost as if God had left it there for me to find. I picked it up, and the first verses I read were Lord Krishna’s reassurance to Arjuna that when the body dies, the soul continues. Just as a person casts away old and worn-out clothing and puts on a new set of clothing, the soul takes on a new body.
I was astounded to find this ancient book, from another part of the world, which echoed precisely the philosophy to which I was feeling drawn. I have sometimes said that it was like being an extraterrestrial, raised by human beings, who had come across an artifact from his home planet. This book made more sense to me than anything else I had ever read or heard.
So, when I was playing cards on the camping trip and began expressing my views once the topic of religion arose, my friend’s cousin promptly informed me that I was going to hell. I was not only a Catholic. (She believed that all Catholics were going to hell in any case). I was a weird Catholic who believed in rebirth. I was definitely going to hell!

I had already concluded by that time that the idea of hell did not make any sense. I was also offended by the hypocrisy of someone who claimed to be a follower of Jesus (who said, “Do not judge others”) judging and condemning me to hell. But I was also shaken that an adult would speak in such a way to a child, threatening them with eternal damnation. It felt to me like a form of child abuse.
What made more sense to me, and seemed, again, more consistent with the idea of a just and loving God, was that paths to God must be universally available. It would be up to us, as free beings, to choose whether we took one of these paths. But a loving God would certainly not leave entire civilizations in darkness, as many Christians claimed.

Some time after the card game from hell, as I continued to my exploration of the world’s religions, I was reading Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man and came across the following words of Sri Ramakrishna:
‘I have practiced, ’ said he, ‘all religions–Hinduism, Islām, Christianity–and I have also followed the paths of the different Hindu sects. I have found that it is the same God toward whom all are directing their steps, though along different paths . . . The substance is One under different names, and everyone is seeking the same substance; only climate, temperament, and name create differences. Let each man follow his own path. If he sincerely and ardently wishes to know God, peace be unto him! He will surely realize Him. As with the doctrine of rebirth, and my finding the Bhagavad Gita, reading these words reflecting the Hindu teaching of pluralism–that many paths can and do lead to the ultimate goal–was a transformative experience. This made sense! Much more than the idea of only one true faith, with everyone else in the world going to hell

Early in my spiritual journey, I read the works of many great and wise teachers: not only Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, but many others as well, like Paramahansa Yogananda, Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Swami Muktananda, Swami Rama, and still more, as well as classic texts such as the Upanishads, the Dhammapada, the Daodejing, and so on. I also continued to read and study from within the tradition in which I was born, exploring the works of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Anselm, and modern masters like Thomas Merton.
Many years later, after I decided to pursue a career in the study of philosophy and religion and was in the midst of my graduate studies, I met the woman who became my wife, best friend, and fellow traveler on the spiritual path. Mahua, a Bengali Hindu, was born to the tradition of Sri Ramakrishna. Her father was a great devotee of both Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, while her mother was a similarly great devotee of Anandamayi Ma. It was through this family connection that I came to appreciate the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna at an even deeper level.
Early in my teaching career, after graduate school, the two of us attended a conference, where I presented on Swami Vivekananda’s role in the rediscovery of Buddhism in India. Several swamis and pravrajikas of the Ramakrishna Order also presented at this same conference. I found these presentations to be the best of all, blending both scholarly acumen with a spiritual sensitivity and an appreciation for the depth of Swamiji’s philosophy. My wife and I were both especially drawn to one of these swamis, who eventually consented to become our Guru, giving us diksha, or initiation, into the tradition of Sri Ramakrishna.
I feel that, in this tradition, I have truly come home. I am grateful for my upbringing in the Catholic Church. It gave me a solid foundation in morality and an appreciation for spiritual life. I found, however, the teachings of Christianity too confining, though I nevertheless retain a deep appreciation for it as a valid path to God-realization, as Sri Ramakrishna has taught. When I had ceased to identify with Christianity–ironically, during my time as an undergraduate at a Catholic university, the University of Notre Dame–I felt a sense of freedom, but also a sense of becoming “unplugged” from a source of spiritual energy and inspiration.
Since taking initiation in the tradition of Sri Ramakrishna, I again feel “plugged in. ” I have become convinced that the guru-shishya-parampara, the tradition from teacher to student, tracing back to a great enlightened being, and the guru-shakti, the spiritual energy, that is transmitted via this lineage, are real things. (In the Catholic Church it is called “apostolic succession, ” and is traced back to Jesus. )
As of this writing, it has been twenty years since I met my Guru, and almost twenty years since my initiation. I am grateful every day to God, to my Guru, to my wife, and to the family of all spiritual seekers around the world for the experiences that have led me to this place:
even that miserable card game all those years ago!

Jeffery D. Long is a religious studies scholar who works on the religions and philosophies of India, particularly Hinduism and Jainism. He is a professor of religion and Asian studies at Elizabethtown College. Dr. Long is associated with the Vedanta Society, New york. A major theme of his work is religious pluralism. Dr. Long has authored several books.

Back to Autumn 2022

A Vedantist View of Ireland

Saturday, March 28, 2020
I can hear the church bells ring for noontime Angelus from our house in Connemara. They are a reminder to repeat a prayer:
The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary,
And she conceived of the Holy Spirit.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art Thou . . .
Now and at the hour of our death.
The Divine Mother everywhere is the remover of obstacles and affliction. But in Ireland we pray to Mary in particular to intercede with Jesus her son and with God the Father in times of distress. If there has ever been a time to ask for her help, it is during this Covid-19 pandemic, for those who are sick or facing destitution or otherwise in fear.
The bells of this Catholic church are virtual. Their machine-generated tones, broadcast from loudspeakers, reverberate over the unnaturally still streets of the village.
The following day (Sunday)
Only one or two parishioners are allowed inside the Catholic church to assist the priest for Mass. I am not one of them.
But I can see the priest in my mind’s eye. I can hear him repeat Christ’s words, ‘Do this in memory of me.’ And I ask – is it merely memory? Is not the Last Supper being recreated at this moment? Does not the remembrance by even a single worshipper usher the Lord’s Lila into existence?
Meditating on the Eucharist through the lens of the Gita, we understand the Mass as the eternal sacrifice. The sacramental host, the act of its offering, he who consecrates the host in the inner flame of his being – if you realize the Divine in each of these, you will reach the Divine.
Meanwhile – the little village where I live has eight rumored cases of Covid-19, which, relative to its tiny size, implies an astronomical rate of infection. Naturally people here are fearful. They accept lockdown without reservation. As recent arrivals from abroad, my wife and I are more restricted than the other villagers – we may not enter shops or any public building.
Sunday, April 26, 2020
Now the church is live-streaming Mass with an iPhone for camera. It is reassuring to watch, to picture myself there, though the priest sings off key and his words are difficult to make out as they echo across the near-empty cavern of the church.
A month ago the villagers were just afraid of the virus. Now they are restless to boot. Emotions are raw and ever on the verge of multiplying like uncontrollable audio feedback. Still, these Irish are practical people. In their hearts they are calm, they view the pandemic as one more passing thing. Life will return to the old ways sooner or later. Shops and pubs will reopen, crowds will watch the Galway races elbow-to-elbow, and churches will fill up on the major feast days. This is a conservative place where tradition dies hard, if it ever dies at all. Famines and wars have devastated this part of Ireland, forcing half the population to emigrate and decimating the rest. Those who remained passed down to their descendants a stubborn identity as Catholic Connemara Irish.

For seven centuries, the English colonial rulers suppressed the native Irish and their Catholic religion. They starved the populace, reduced it to serfdom, burned its churches and banished or killed its priests. They cynically offered conversion to Protestantism as a way up and out for those who would repudiate their Catholic faith – but few accepted the offer. Instead, mistreatment by the English bound the Irish forever more tightly to their church.
But he Catholic church in Ireland isn’t what it used to be. I think for Irish society at large that is actually a good thing. Years of unjust persecution conferred immense moral authority on the Irish Catholic church. Subsequent years of arrogance and complacency have effectively squandered that authority. The Church has slid increasingly into irrelevance, causing pews to empty out, vocations to thin, and young people to tell the reporters from Irish Television that the Church means nothing to them.
But you wouldn’t know it out here in the country. Most people here identify themselves with a parish – there are several in the area – and go to Mass at least monthly. Though no longer its unrivalled heart, the parish church remans a vital organ of the community.
Catholicism is the de facto religion of the west of Ireland to a degree unimaginable to most twenty-first century Americans. Newspapers and radio stations keep their audiences up to date with local parish services and holy day activities, and host opinion columns by local clergy. In the shops you will find cards for novenas and Holy Communion mixed in with the birthday cards. The ubiquitous Catholic ‘national’ schools are funded by the State.
A half block up the main street is another church in my village – the Church of Ireland, as the Anglican Church in Ireland is called. All over the Republic, the Church of Ireland is struggling, because Protestants are nowadays few, less than one in twenty among the populace. Also, Protestantism is a reminder of the English occupation, though the Irish for the most part no longer bear any ill will toward the English. Once upon a time this was the established church in Ireland, meaning that all Irish, including the Catholic majority, had to tithe in its support. Two hundred years ago on any Sunday morning this little church would be filled with dozens of soldiers from the local British garrison, their bright scarlet uniforms standing out among the plainer clothes of the local landowners and merchants. Now the church is lucky to have a dozen souls in attendance on a given Sunday. But those who attend are committed. The silver lining in the decline of organized religion is that the parishioners who would come to church mainly to be seen have fallen away. Only the dedicated are left in the nearly empty pews.
This is the church I look forward to attending regularly when services are allowed to resume. Its small but ardent numbers call to mind the words of Jesus: ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’
. . . . . . . . . .
I was profoundly touched on reading a conversation between Swami Ramakrishnananda and an Irish monk who had converted to Buddhism, disavowing the Catholic faith in which he was raised. To the monk Swami said, ‘God can be attained through all paths. You could have got liberation by following your own religion. You have made a blunder by giving up your own [Catholic] religion and accepting another.’ For the swami, the monk’s blunder lay not in his embracing of Buddhism, but in his rejection of his native religion, where everything he would need to realize God was already at hand.

It would be splendid to see a Vedanta Society grow up in the west of Ireland, bringing to light in this region the teachings of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, all the while seen as a unity with the traditional Catholic faith. There already are wonderful spiritual riches all about here – people here only need to be awakened to them. If Vedanta can be propagated in such a way as to breathe new life into the ancient Catholic traditions, it will surely catch fire among the latent Irish spiritual seekers now disaffected from their country’s religious past.
Every Indian child growing up is exposed to the stories and myths surrounding such divine figures as Krishna and Rama. The Irish too have access to a vast treasury of spiritual legends, made tangible in the stone crosses, holy wells and monastic ruins from Ireland’s glorious past. I will mention just two places of pilgrimage near where I live that I am fond of visiting: Balintubber and Knock.

Across the lake from my village and some miles to the north is Ballintubber Abbey, where Mass has been said without interruption for eight hundred years. Norman invaders burned the Abbey in the 13th century, English kings further suppressed it, and Cromwell’s soldiers burned down the Abbey roof and surrounding buildings in 1653 – but the Abbey walls remained standing, and Mass continued to be celebrated in the apse of the church. A short walk from the Abbey is St. Patrick’s well, where the legendary fifth-century patron saint of Ireland is said to have baptized his converts (and from which Balintubber, “village of the well”, gets its name). A nearby stone is said to bear the imprint of the saint’s knee.
Several times each year, beginning on Easter Monday, pilgrims assemble here to walk an ancient 22-mile route known as Tóchar Phádraig, or St. Patrick’s Causeway. Their destination is Croagh Patrick, the sacred mountain on whose summit the great founder saint of Ireland fasted for forty days in 441 AD. The priest leading the walk is in high spirits as he points out dozens of spots along the way, each with a story of its own. There is, for example, the ‘Dancora’ (bath of the righteous) where medieval pilgrims, in ritual expression of being cleansed of sin, washed after their pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick before their return home. Hot stones kept the water in the Dancora warm.

St.John The Evangelist,Mother Mary,St.Joseph, and the lamb of God surrounded by angels

It is said that when St. Patrick ended his fast on the mountain summit, he threw a silver bell down the mountain knocking Corra, the mother of all demons, out of the sky and into Lough Nacorra where she drowned. He then banished all the snakes in Ireland into the sea. Some believe that snakes were regarded as symbols of the druids, the high priests of the pre-Christian Celts.
There is no paved path up the steep mountain, only sand, mud, rocks and gravel. In days gone by the especially devout would sometimes climb the mountain on their knees. Halfway up the mountain is a cairn of rocks, atop which you will find a small informal shrine. Coming close you will see it is devoted to the twentieth-century Italian saint Padre Pio, who was known for his extreme piety and service to the sick, and for the stigmata which he tried to conceal but could not, much to the consternation of his superiors in the Church.
Twenty miles to the northeast of Ballintubber is Knock, where in 1879 fifteen villagers had a vision of Mother Mary on the outer wall of their parish church. Wearing a crown and dressed in white, she was flanked by the Lamb of God, Saint Joseph and St. John the Evangelist. For two hours the villagers were transfixed by the vision as they recited their rosary on bended knee. When Pope John Paul II visited Knock to celebrate Mass one hundred years later, he was greeted by a throng of nearly half a million – about one in ten inhabitants of the country.
Over the years Knock has become a major center of pilgrimage, with a modern basilica that dwarfs the original parish church. It even has its own airport. Nonetheless, in the off-season Knock can be surprisingly quiet and intimate. On one of my visits to the town I was graced with the company of an American sannyasin, who toured the site enthusiastically. Naturally outgoing and spontaneous, he entered into spirited conversation

John Curry(d.1943), last living witness of the apparition

with one of the many shopkeepers along the main street that sold statues and other memorabilia of the Shrine. I was skeptical that such a shopkeeper would have any interest in a place of pilgrimage beyond the purely mercantile.

Mother Teresa visiting the Shrine

But how delighted I was when our swami emerged with several mementoes of Padre Pio presented to him as gifts. The shopkeeper was in fact a sincere devotee of Padre Pio and a devout Christian – as doubtless are countless other merchants and hoteliers at pilgrim centers, grateful for the privilege of dwelling and making their living in a holy place.
Friday, May 29, 2020
Walking home the other day from the village, we noticed the front entrance to the Catholic church was open. Almost on tiptoe we approached and opened the inner door. The apse was empty and still, save for three or four votive candles burning near the main altar. We sat and prayed and meditated awhile. It had been two months since we had last been inside of a place of worship – how cooling was the relief we felt, how soothing the knowledge that we could come back again to sit where the Lord was especially manifest.
Saturday, June 19, 2020
The lockdown continues to lift. We expect services to resume in our Church of Ireland Sunday after next. It will be joyful to see again the little band of parishioners whose acquaintance we had just begun to make earlier this year. The Catholic church in the village has been raising funds for, among other things, repair of the church bells so that we can hear their living musical tones once again. Yet the church will not be able to resume its services for some time in order to respect social distancing. And when it does, how soon will the choir sing together again? When will congregants join together again in the body and blood of Christ?
Nowadays the word ‘together’ evokes hope and fear and anxious caution. The realization is dawning on us all that even after the pandemic has become a distant memory, its impact on our lives will be lasting and disruptive. Things cannot and will not go back to as they were before.
Old forms are dissipating, new forms are in creation, yet the Divine and our relation to Him stay the same, at all times and in every place.

Back to Autumn 2020

Music and Mynah in Gramercy Park

Diane Marshall

Swami Vivekananda’s life has been well-studied, but details about some of the things he did continue to surprise us. Can you picture him conversing in English with a hill mynah in the middle of New York City—or singing in Norwegian?
One of Swamiji’s very devoted friends and supporters in New York was Emma Cecilia Thursby (1845–1931). She was a classically trained singer, and she had a very successful career as a concert soloist during the 1870s and 1880s, traveling throughout Europe and North America. She had an incredible three octave range and she could sing difficult arias by Mozart such as “Der höllerache” and “Ma che vi fece, o stelle” with ease. After her London debut in 1879 The Times wrote:
“Her voice, a high soprano, is sympathetic, and her method singularly free from all mannerisms… the production of the voice, especially in the higher registers, is remarkable for its ease and absolute purity of intonation.” 1
During the winter of 1895 Miss Thursby and her close friend Sara Chapman Bull (1850–1911) arranged several lectures for Swamiji in New York City. It was an intensely busy period for him, teaching classes in the morning and giving lectures in the evening. It was also a busy and fruitful period for Miss Thursby, as her biographer noted:
“The Vedanta philosophy of Vivekananda had, indeed, aided her in at last reaching a strong conviction in her usefulness. She would henceforth devote her life to teaching of that art of singing in which her achievements had been so brilliant; to that art of friendly intercourse in the spirit of which her “Fridays” had already been established; and to that art of kindness and compassion and sacrifice to which so much of her life had already been dedicated.” 2
Miss Thursby formerly sang at the Broadway Tabernacle, a large church close to Swamiji’s rented rooms at 54 West 33rd Street. In later years, between 1905 and 1911, she was a professor of music at the Institute of Musical Art (now Juilliard School) in New York. 3
On Monday 28 January Swamiji gave a talk in Miss Thursby’s drawing room. She lived at 34 Gramercy Park East. Gramercy Park was the first planned residential development on Manhattan, begun in the 1830s. It resembles the green squares of London where elegant terraced houses surround a small park bound by a wrought iron fence. Gramercy Park is Manhattan’s only private, gated park. The neighborhood has long been popular with actors and performers. No. 34 still stands at the corner of East 20th Street and Gramercy Park East, and its distinctive facade remains original. Built in 1883, it was New York’s first co-op apartment house with its own Otis elevator. The original elevator, the one that Swamiji would have used, was replaced in 1995.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle featured Miss Thursby and her most famous student, Geraldine Farrar, in an article on 27 July 1924. It described her concert career, her voice, and the cultured life in her Gramercy Park salon:
In her home in Gramercy Park, one of the few remaining spots in Manhattan that retain the charm of old New York, Miss Thursby holds a salon, which is said to represent more truly than any other in the whole country the salon of the Beau Monde, Paris. In a spacious, low-ceilinged drawing room that is filled with art treasures, souvenirs, gifts from all over the world, Miss Thursby and her sister, Miss Ina Thursby, receive on Fridays in January. At one end of this big room hangs a life size portrait of Miss Thursby by George P. A. Healy, an American painter who received important recognition in Paris. At these at homes one meets a cosmopolitan company, among whom are stars of the opera and the theater, authors, painters, sculptors, scholars, diplomats, statesmen, social leaders and persons of distinction in different activities from all over the world…
Also among the guests from the Far East were Tagore, Das Gupta, Suami Viva Kananda[sic], the Begum of Janpira and her sister, the Princess, who are thoroughly familiar with Hindu music, in which Miss Thursby also takes a keen interest. One of her most diverting experiences, musically, was in teaching Viva Kananda to sing the songs of Grieg with the quality of voice in which he recites his Sanscrit[sic] chants, which, she says, is rarely beautiful. 4
Lillian Edgerton, the journalist who interviewed Miss Thursby, wrote of Swamiji in the present tense, as if he were still alive in 1924. It is quite possible that Miss Thursby gave her that impression, and it indicates that Swamiji remained a living presence in her life.
Emma Thursby and Sara Bull were bonded not only as friends but also as artists. They were like musical sisters. In the early 1870s Miss Thursby and Norwegian violinist Ole Bull had performed in concerts together. Ole’s young wife, Sara, would have accompanied them on the piano, perhaps not on the stage, but certainly they spent many hours making music together in rehearsal and at home. Swamiji was frequently a guest at Sara Bull’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In that pre-electronic era the piano played a fundamental role in middle-class homes. It was as important as the hearth. Although Swamiji sometimes complained of “thumping” on the piano when he stayed with people who merely played pop songs, the music that filled the homes of Mrs. Bull and Miss Thursby was artistry of the highest order.
It is fascinating to contemplate the musical exchange between Swamiji and Miss Thursby. He taught her the theory of Indian music, and she taught Swamiji to sing some songs by the Norwegian composer, Edvard Grieg. Ole Bull had mentored Grieg when he was a teenager. After Ole’s death, Sara Bull kept in touch with his Norwegian compatriots and fellow artists. By 1895 Grieg had established a high reputation as Norway’s leading composer. His style was Romantic and Nationalistic—probably a very good musical choice for Swamiji. There is no mention of which songs Swamiji may have practiced, but the dignified, meditative “En Svane” is a good example to listen to. Swamiji’s voice, according to written descriptions, was rich and deep—probably in the baritone range.
It stands to reason that Swamiji visited 34 Gramercy Park East many times. And during his visits there he must have met Mynah because “Mynah ruled the household.” 5
Mynah was a remarkable bird and personality. “He spoke grammatically and often with disconcerting fluency in five languages:” English, French, German, Malay and Chinese.6 He could sing songs, mimic the banjo, and play melodies on the piano by stepping on the keys. “This Mina (sic) was loquacious, weirdly knowing, vain and snobbish.” 7 Mynah had his own room and was treated more like a child than a pet. Swamiji especially liked animals, and I can imagine him conversing with Mynah like he was an old friend. Thursby had adopted him in Ems, Germany about 1887. The German ambassador to China, who had acquired the bird in India, gave him to Miss Thursby and instructed the bird to stay with her.8 Henceforth, Mynah called Miss Thursby “Mamma.”
Mynah travelled wherever Miss Thursby went. She would let him fly free when they went to places like Green Acre, Maine. Sarah J. Farmer was very fond of Mynah, and she wrote a letter praising the bird. 9 It is possible that Swamiji first met Mynah at Green Acre in 1894, as did Swami Abhedananda in 1898. Mynah was surely welcome at Sara Bull’s houses at Green Acre and in Cambridge. Mynah loved to play in Gramercy Park. He would watch the children from the window and would beg, “Mamma, mamma, I want to get out! I’ll come right back.” This, however, Miss Thursby seldom allowed because Mynah had once been stolen from Gramercy Park, and she had had a terrible time getting him back.
An article in the Washington D.C. Evening Times stated that both Swami Vivekananda and Swami Abhedananda admired Mynah.
“It is a marvel,” said they; “a fit bird to perch upon the sacred finger of Lal Rao. Peace be unto it.”10
While it is good to have confirmation in print that Swamiji appreciated Mynah, it is bizarre to think of him reverencing a deity called Lal Rao. Either the journalist misunderstood whatever he was told or clearly fabricated this “sacred finger of Lal Rao” business. Who was Lal Rao? In the 1890s the only Lal Rao known to Americans was a fictional character, the Indian butler in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Sign of the Four. Although this journalist got his facts scrambled, I think it can be assumed that on separate occasions Swamiji and Swami Abhedananda said nice things about Mynah.
On 1 December 1898 Mynah made a celebrity appearance at the New York Ornithological Society show, delighting the crowds. Later, at home, he gave his last interview to a journalist from the New York Herald who declared him the “Smartest Bird in the World.”11 On 30 December, he entertained a group of underprivileged children.12 Shortly after that, Mynah, who was about fifteen years old, became ill and died 27 January 1899, pitifully crying in French “au revoir.”
Mynah’s strange existence soon got even stranger. Postmortem, the bird was autopsied by three physicians—none of whom were veterinarians or ornithologists. They determined that Mynah died of spinal meningitis and that his brain and vocal chords were unusually large. Then Mynah was stuffed by a taxidermist and he was exhibited under a bell jar in Miss Thursby’s apartment. In time, she apparently relinquished her attachment to Mynah’s feathered form. When she was interviewed in 1924, she said that Mynah was buried under a willow tree in Gramercy Park.13
The story of Mynah’s death was reported in newspapers all over the country. It gained a lot of attention in Hawaii. South Asian mynahs were introduced to Hawaii in 1865 to control an infestation of army worms. This worked as a temporary measure, but as the birds thrived, the environmental balance was upset—as often happens with the introduction of non-native species. By 1899 Hawaiians were agitated because mynahs were accused of spreading another invasive species, lantana, by eating and excreting its fruit. The mynahs of Hawaii were common mynahs (Acridotherestrististristis). It is believed that Miss Thursby’s Mynah was a hill mynah (Gracula religiosa), a bird that is currently endangered in Meghalaya, India.14
Problems of conserving wildlife now confront every country on the planet. In Swamiji’s day, bird populations in America were being decimated to provide feathers for the fashion industry. During the mid-1890s ladies hats were often decorated with entire birds. Such ostentatious display was everywhere that Swamiji went. Even Mynah must have noticed it. Especially hard hit by this greedy slaughter for feathers were the Florida snowy egrets, members of the same family of birds that inspired Ramakrishna’s first samadhi as a boy. Little Gadadhar went into ecstasy when he saw a flock of beautiful shadabak flying freely against dark rain clouds. So much depends upon the beauty of birds!
In February 1896 two Boston women organized the Massachusetts Audubon Society to stop the killing of egrets for hat decoration.15 (One of the Vice-presidents was Mrs. Louis Agassiz who had helped arrange Swamiji’s lecture at Radcliffe College.) Protective laws such as the Lacey Act of 1900 began to change the exploitative mindset of the culture. The sale of wild bird plumes was outlawed in 1910. Eventually, women—aided by the apocalypse of World War I—ended the fashion for feathered hats.
Worldwide, the hill mynah is not considered threatened, but locally there is cause for concern. They are “virtually extinct in Bangladesh due to habitat destruction and overexploitation for the pet trade.” This scarcity has now spread to Northeastern India. Hill mynahs live and breed in the upper forest canopy. They are very difficult to breed in captivity. If hill mynahs were easily bred in captivity, then there would be no incentive to capture them from the wild. Therefore current suppliers to the pet trade need to abide by sustainable practices or there will be no future for them.
The extinction of the passenger pigeon is a cautionary tale. Native to North America, it was once the most abundant bird population in the world. The birds traveled in flocks so large that they blotted out the sun when they flew overhead. People killed them by the thousands—partly to eat, but mostly just for “sport”. They did not believe that such a plentiful creature could disappear from the earth. Yet a population counted in the hundreds of millions in 1871 had shrunk to just dozens by 1895. The last passenger pigeon died in 1914. When Swamiji was at the World’s Fair in Chicago, Americans shocked by their own wastefulness were trying to explain to themselves the near extinction of the buffalo.
Miss Thursby’s pet Mynah was beloved, but in one important respect he had a lonely existence. Mynah never had any relationship with his own kind, and that is the fate of most birds sold into the pet trade.

Life in Metaphors: the Poetry of Swami Vivekananda

Life is a journey, and I have made most of my current one here amidst the vibrant fusion of landscapes and cultures that is South Africa. No one makes their journey alone, so many other travellers keep us company as we go – although not all of them do so in person. Sometimes they walk with us in the memories we have of them, sometimes in the stories we’ve heard of them, and sometimes in the words they wrote that whisper to us across time. I have walked the bustling streets of Gauteng, the sweet-scented bush paths of Mpumalanga, the sun kissed shorelines of KwaZulu Natal, and in the rhythmic wisdom of his poetry, Swami Vivekananda has come to walk with me.
Life is an abstract concept, a collection of experiences that we package into memories. That small word, “life”, is too vast and personal a concept to adequately describe or accurately share with anyone. Yet we talk about it in concrete ways, using images others can picture in their minds, and experiences other people may have had or can imagine having. In cognitive linguistics – a field of linguistics that deals with the study of the relationship between language and the mind – we call the cognitive operation of understanding something relatively abstract, in terms of something more concrete, a conceptual metaphor.
The understanding of metaphors in cognitive linguistics differs from the definition of metaphors most of us encountered at school, in that for cognitive linguists, metaphors may be conceptual rather than literary in nature. That is to say that many of the metaphors we use every day are not purposefully created as literary devices or to enhance communication, rather, they arise naturally from the way we as humans perceive and understand the word. In English for example, when we think about life, we commonly conceptualise it as a journey. This is reflected in the way we speak about life, using terms such as: “life isn’t a destination, it’s a journey”, “I’ve come so far, but I’ve still got a long way to go”, “I feel like I’ve hit a dead end”, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it”. These expressions are such a natural part of language that they may not even appear to be metaphorical nature, yet they are all expressions of the conceptual metaphor which a cognitive linguists would present as: LIFE IS A JOURNEY.
The meaning of a conceptual metaphor is far deeper and more expansive than the meaning of the individual words that make up the metaphor. When we interact with a conceptual metaphor, a process of meaning construction occurs in which we unconsciously draw on our feelings, experiences and knowledge associated with something (for example a journey) and we transfer or project those feelings, experiences and knowledge onto something else (for example life). This means no one has to explain all the implications and subtleties of the conceptual metaphor to us, we have an automatic understanding, albeit a personalised one that will differ slightly from person to person. When someone says, “life isn’t a destination, it’s a journey”, it activates a vast network of background information on travelling and journeys, and without even having to think about it, we can make the link between what we know about a journey, and how those things apply to life.
We know for example that journeys, regardless of their type, purpose or destination, share several characteristics: they have a beginning and an end, but they vary in length and in the experiences they include. In the same way, life in terms of our physical existence has a finite span, but a human life can be anything from a few seconds to more than a hundred years, and no two people have the exact same experience of life.

Swami Vivekananda’s poetry is abundant in conceptual metaphors, and especially those describing life. He frequently speaks about life as a journey, both on land and as a sea voyage, but also describes it as a play, and speaks of it as a type of bondage that we ultimately seek to be freed from.
The way we travel and the entertainment we watch has of course changed significantly since Swami Vivekananda undertook his historical journey, over sea and land, to the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, but the meaning of the metaphors he uses, and the essence of his words, are as pertinent and powerful now the modern world, and here in South Africa, as they would have been then and there. Consciously delving into the meaning of the conceptual metaphors in his poems, by drawing on our personal experiences and associations, gifts us with an opportunity to free ourselves from thinking of poetic analysis as right or wrong, objectively accurate or not. It allows the brilliance and wisdom of the words to percolate through our own experiences, and enrich us with a deeper, more profound understanding of ourselves.
While the scope of his work is too great to analyse fully here, in this article I take Swami Vivekananda’s poetry, look at three of the common conceptual metaphors he uses for life, and briefly share the vision of life I see through the lens of Swamij’s work.

The most common conceptual metaphor for life in Swami Vivekananda’s poems appears to be LIFE IS A JOURNEY. In To My Own Soul, he introspects how it seems to be an age since they “began our March up hill or down”, and in Hymn to Shiva, there is mention of, “where the existence ends”. Life in the physical sense is therefore not eternal, it begins at a point and ends at a point, between those two points there are a plethora of experiences. A journey is sometimes enjoyable as we go “Sailing smooth o’er Seas that are so rare”1 , but sometimes difficult, “a painful road and drear” with “stones that never give you rest”2, and life too is sometimes carefree and sometimes fraught with challenges. What’s more, when we travel we might sometimes travel alone, we might get lost along the way. “Like a child in the wildest forest lost” 3 we are confused and overwhelmed, sometimes we feel isolated, even from God.
Despite the possible hardships and the road not being a direct and predicable route, there is an element of planning involved, and each part of the journey depends on decisions we’ve made and which route we’ve chosen. In life then, the realities of this life are the manifestations of my previous actions, as we read in No One to Blame:
“Each day my life I make or mar,
Each deed begets its kind,
Good good, bad bad, the tide once set
No one can stop or stem;
No one but me to blame.”
Perhaps more pertinently, when metaphorically relating a journey to life, we know that no matter how arduous or adventurous the journey is, the process is a temporary one. A crossing from one place to another. It is a passage of transient experiences and possibly numerous stops, ending when the traveller returns home. Transposed onto life, this reminds us that we are journeying through this world, in these bodies, but this world is not our destination and is not our home. We see this reflected in My Play is Done, where the poet beseeches Maa Kali: “Open the gates of light, O Mother, to me Thy tired son .I long, oh, long to return home!”
We also see reference to the temporary and illusory nature of this physical existence in Swami Vivekananda’s descriptions of life as a play. Analysing the metaphor, LIFE IS A PLAY, we note that the theatrical world the player inhabits for the duration of the play, is not the real world. Rather, it is a false reality, set up for the audience to appear – for the purposes of the performance – as if it is real. An accomplished actor will interact with the make-believe world on the stage as if it were real. The audience in turn will suspend their disbelief and allow themselves to be absorbed by the action as if they were watching events happening in real life. How often have we watched a play or a TV show, and been so absorbed that we found ourselves angry at the villain, cheering for the hero, crying when an on-stage or on-screen character dies, or left feeling elated by a happy ending? The play however, has a defined start and it must have an end. In addition, it is not a random flow of action and dialogue, but something which is scripted.
In the poem, Thou Blessed Dream, Swami Vivekananda writes:
“A play — we each have part,
Each one to weep or laugh as may;
Each one his dress to don —
Its scenes, alternative shine and rain.”
Life, as a play then, is a temporary endeavour in which like actors we are acting out a part in a series of events, in an agreed upon version of reality, rather than an ultimate Divine reality. In My Play is Done, Swamiji reminds the reader several times, that life is temporary, as the scenes of a play are “fleeting” and “ephemeral”. We are therefore not destined to remain here in this physical incarnation, any more than an actor would make his home in a theatre. So he calls on the Mother: “Mother my play is done”.
If life can be seen as a journey we undertake, or a play we act out a role in, then some of Swami Vivekananda’s poetry seems to suggest that this is a journey or a play that brings with it an element of bondage. We are captive in these bodies during our sojourn on this planet, and the homecoming he longs for in My Play is Done, is achieved only this bond of life is broken, and he is freed. In the poem he pleads with the Mother:
“My play is done; O Mother,
break my chains and make me free!”
The metaphor of life being bondage, and death then freedom from bondage, also appears in Requiescat in Pace! The title of the poem is Latin for “may he/she rest in peace”, a line often inscribed on tombstones or offered as a term of condolence on someone’s death. According to, Swami Vivekananda wrote the poem for the mother of his disciple J. J. Goodwin, who had died:
“Thy bonds are broke, thy quest in bliss is found”.
In To My Own Soul, this bondage takes the form of “a lifelong yoke”, which the soul is obliged to carry while in this world. The word has several meanings but is commonly used to describe the wooden bar laid across the shoulders of animals such as oxen, to drive them in their duty and direct their movement. While the precise meaning may be not be clear, the association with lack of freedom, and with a burden, is evident. Freedom them, comes in the release of this bondage, which occurs when the soul is released from the body.
South Africa’s beloved Nelson Mandela wrote in his biography, The Long Walk to Freedom, “But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb”. While we are still here making this journey, we may have many hills still to climb before we can rest. While we are performing this play, we may have many more parts to play before our final curtain call. Some of us may feel a lightness in that, others burden and bondage. But however we travel through life, whichever part of the world we leave our footprints on, and whichever constellation of stars we are fall asleep under, while we can share the glow of poetry and stories, while we can reach out to each other with our hearts, minds and words, we are all walking home together.
1.Swami Vivekananda, ‘To my own soul’ in The Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1997) 8.159

  1. Swami Vivekananda, ‘The Quest for God’ in The Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1997) 8.159
    3.Swami Vivekananda, ‘The Cup’ in The Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1997) 6.159Quest for God

Ms Jolene Raison a TESOL teacher, professional writer, poet and a children’s author. lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her MA in General Linguistics at Unisa, is with a focus on Cognitive Linguistics. She aims to promote poetry in schools in South Africa and beyond, and to instil knowledge, understanding and a love of poetry in young learners through ZAPP (The South African Poetry Project).

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