The Purpose of a Vedanta Society

By Swami Tyagananda

Swami Tyagananda is head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston. The paper below was presented at the symposium held on the occasion of the Platinum Jubilee of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society, Chicago, in June, 2005.

Chicago has a special place in the hearts of devotees and students of Swami Vivekananda because it was in Chicago that the seeds of the Vedanta movement in the West were first planted. Ganges has a special place in their hearts as well, for the delightful coincidence of having a Vedanta retreat in a place with a name that spontaneously draws the veneration and love of all Hindus.

The completion of 75 years of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society in Chicago is a landmark in its history. The Society as it is today is the result of extraordinary dedication and spiritual vision of Swami Gnaneswarananda, who founded the Society; Swami Vishwananda, who nurtured it carefully; Swami Bhashyananda, who shepherded its growth and expansion; and Swami Chidananda, who continues to guide and direct the good work of his predecessors. All of these swamis have had the support of dedicated monastics and hardworking devotees, who shared their time, talents and financial resources to make the center a strong and vibrant force in the city.

Celebration Alongside Reflection

It is certainly the right time to celebrate, but it is also a time to pause and reflect. It is always helpful when a celebration is sandwiched between periods of reflection. The first reflection would deal with the question: What exactly are we celebrating and why are we doing it? The later reflection is meant to ask: What next? Now that the celebration is over, what do we do now? I would like to share with you a few thoughts surrounding these important questions.

Fortunately, such questions are not being asked for the first time and various answers have indeed been proposed in the past. Many of the senior swamis on the platform today, who have spent many more years in the West than I have, have deeper insights on the subject based on their experience. It will also be a fruitful study to see what the swamis who are with us no more—the second generation, which came here in the early part of the last century—have said or written on the subject.

When we celebrate a landmark in the history of an organization, we are essentially expressing satisfaction that the organization has fulfilled, or is in the process of fulfilling, the purpose for which it was founded. What was the purpose for which the Vivekananda Vedanta Society—or, for that matter, any of the Vedanta Societies in the West—was founded? This question became more urgent and more personal for me when I was asked by Belur Math to come to this country more than six years ago. I needed to know what I was supposed to do. I needed to know what my purpose of coming here was—and whether it was same as, or different from, what I had until then seen as the purpose of my becoming a monk or of choosing my spiritual path.

One way of approaching the question is to go back to the source, as it were, and explore the purpose for which Swami Vivekananda came to the West and decided to organize Vedanta Societies on the Western soil. It is not easy to determine the purpose of Swamiji’s visit and what made him initiate organized activity here in the West. Over the years students of his life have selectively quoted his words uttered in different contexts to arrive at answers that seemed to resonate with their own views on the matter. We thus have many possible answers.

The Purpose of Swamiji’s Visit

One simple and obvious answer is that Swamiji came to the West to participate in the World’s Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in the year 1893. Some feel, though, that it was not the primary purpose of his visit. His main purpose was to earn money for the uplift of the poor in India. We read in his biography that at Kanyakumari, in the depths of meditation on what he called the “last bit of Indian rock,” he found his calling:

He would go to America in the name of India’s millions. There he would earn money by the power of his brain. Returning to India, he would devote himself to the regeneration of his countrymen—or die in the attempt.

From America, he wrote to a disciple: “I came to this country not to satisfy my curiosity, nor for name or fame, but to see if I could find any means for the support of the poor in India.”

As it turned out, he did not find the means. He did become a celebrity in the West and was adored by a large number of people, who staunchly supported him. But financial help in a big way never came. With his apparently primary purpose defeated, he ought to have returned to India. But we are baffled to see him continuing to teach in the West, even refusing payment when it was offered. As he wrote in another letter:

…collecting funds even for a good work is not good for a sannyasin, and I have begun to feel that the old sages were right …I was in these childish ideas of doing this and that …Perhaps these mad desires were necessary to bring me over to this country.

These words have led some people to conclude that although Swamiji came to the West to raise funds for the Indian work and subsequently realized it wasn’t possible, he stayed on because his ideas evolved or his priorities changed or his perception of his “work” got enlarged. According to them, Swamiji realized that the West needed the message of spirituality as much as India needed funds for her material uplift. He wrote in a letter:

My intention is to do something permanent here, and with that object I am working day by day. I am every day gaining the confidence of the American people.

According to others, Swamiji was already aware of the deeper purpose of his visit. They say that Swamiji’s visit to the West was really meant for the spiritual renaissance of the West. We are reminded of his statement: “I have a message to the West as Buddha had a message to the East.” Even as some Indians like to claim Swamiji as their own, circumscribing his personality within the catchphrase “patriot-saint of India,” some Westerners see in him a prophet with a special mission to the West. Since it was in the West that Swamiji’s greatness was first recognized in a big way, it has been claimed with some justification that Vivekananda was America’s gift to the world. The desire to appropriate a prophet as one’s own is perfectly understandable, but it is useful to ask whether a personality of the stature of Swamiji can be confined to a country or a region or even a part of the globe. When someone in India wrote to Swamiji urging him to return “home” to continue his work, Swamiji shot back in a letter:

To return home! Where is the home? I do not care for liberation, or for devotion, I would rather go to a hundred thousand hells, … “doing good to others (silently) as the spring”—this is my religion.

He wrote to another disciple: “Truth is my God, the universe my country … I have a truth to teach, I, the child of God.” And in another of his letters: “I know my mission in life, and no chauvinism about me; I belong as much to India as to the world, no humbug about that.” And again: “You must not forget that my interests are international and not Indian alone.”

This has prompted some thinkers to see Vivekananda as a bridge connecting the East and the West. He embodied in his own life the best of both the cultures and was among the earliest to recognize the need to combine the strengths of both the East and the West for a more harmonious growth and development. In that sense, his vision was a prophet’s response to the needs and challenges that we face in the global society of today. The Ramakrishna Order that he founded is a good example of collective activity that has benefited from the ideas, vision and methods derived from the best that the East and the West have to offer.

Yet another view is that it was not Swamiji who determined the purpose of his visit or even the purpose of the organization that he eventually founded; it was the Divine Mother’s plan and he was only Her instrument. As he wrote in a letter to a Madras disciple: “I see a greater Power than man, or God, or devil at my back.” Wherever he turned, he once said, he was conscious of the presence of the Mother as if She were a person in the room. He felt that it was She, or his own teacher Sri Ramakrishna, “whose hands are clasped upon my own and who leads me as though I were a child.” He never did anything unless he was sure that it was the “Mother’s will.” That is why he even made his young Madras admirers distribute among the poor the money they had raised for his passage to the West, telling them:

My boys, I am determined to force the Mother’s will. She must prove that it is Her intention that I should go, for it is a step in the dark. If it be Her will, then money will come again of itself.

We see, therefore, that there is a wide range of views, all based on the words of Swamiji himself, about the purpose of his visit to the West. Swamiji’s visit to the West and the founding of the Vedanta Societies are events that are inseparably connected, so it is no surprise that, over time, the purpose of his visit got metamorphosed into the purpose of the organizations that were founded in the West under his inspiration.

On one extreme is a purely India-centric view that gives primacy to fundraising for the Indian work. At the other extreme is a West-centric view that the primary purpose of a Vedanta Society is to teach Vedanta to Westerners or be a spiritual resource for Westerners. A view that tries to connect the two extremes is that the purpose of the Vedanta Society is to be a bridge between the East and the West that facilitates a free flow of spirituality one way and material advancement the other way. Finally, there is the view that whatever the purpose, it is best left in the hands of a higher, divine power and the members of the Vedanta Society have only to submit to the divine will.

Perhaps each of these views has some truth in it, but there is no way to verify that independently and objectively. There is no way to know definitively whether there were many purposes or just one and, if there were many, which was a primary purpose and which were the secondary ones. There is no way to verify whether the purpose of Swamiji’s visit to the West—and later, of the Vedanta work in the West—changed over time or remained constant and, if it did remain constant, what that constant purpose was.

The variety that we see today in the way every Vedanta Society functions is largely due to these differing perceptions. The understanding and power that the swamis who founded the Vedanta Societies—and their successors—brought to their work have shaped the growth, influenced the development, and determined the direction of every Vedanta Society in the West. Each of the views regarding the purpose of Swami Vivekananda’s visit to the West is reflected today in the work and programs of the Vedanta Societies but in varying degrees of emphasis.

Evolving Concepts and Changing Categories

No matter what the viewpoint, it cannot afford to ignore the changing social and economic realities in the world. Perceptions that are based on concepts such as “the East” or “the West,” or stereotypes such as the “spiritual East” or the “materialistic West,” need to be re-examined because many concepts and stereotypes change with time. The priorities of individuals and groups change also in a changing economic environment. A major factor in ushering changes all over the world, not just social and economic but also political, is the increased pace of globalization.

It can be said that globalization is not really a new or a recent phenomenon. Its beginnings can well be traced to the early traders and travelers who crossed mountains and oceans centuries ago. The colonization of the lands in Asia, Australia Africa, and in North and South America also contributed to the ongoing process of globalization. The visit of Swami Vivekananda and other teachers from the East to the West more than a century ago became possible because of globalization, as is the presence of many Vedanta Societies in the West. But the pace of globalization really picked up in the 1950s after World War II with rapidly increasing trade and a faster, relatively cheaper mobility provided by jet travel. The mushrooming multinational corporations have contributed to the process, as have universities and colleges that have attracted and welcomed international students. The computers, and especially the internet, have shown that distances don’t matter anymore. The things that can be done online nowadays have also made a mockery of all boundaries—national, cultural, and political.

An inevitable outcome of globalization is the pluralistic environment of modern societies. It is no longer easy to distinguish between “the East” and “the West.” The boundaries have become so blurred as to be rendered meaningless. They never had much meaning anyway. After all, when we say, “the East,” we beg the question: “east of what?” The same is true of the discarded stereotypes such as “the spiritual East” and “the materialistic West.” Not everything in the East is spiritual and not everything in the West is materialistic. The same is true of the flawed perception of the East as other-worldly and superstitious, and the West as pragmatic and rational. Such sweeping generalizations are passé now. Yet how difficult it is to let go of these myths! Swami Vivekananda did indeed make use of these stereotypes in developing certain themes in his lectures and writings. But in his days those terms and those stereotypes were frequently invoked and made sense to the people he was addressing. But no one was more aware than Swamiji that both spirituality and materialism are pervasive entities that have always crisscrossed the planet with no regard to the mythical east/west divide. It seems doubtful to me whether Swamiji would continue to make that distinction and continue to use those outdated stereotypes were he to speak with us today.

The same is true of categories such as “Westerner” or “Easterner.” In the Vedanta Society circles in the United States, the “Westerner” is usually referred to as “American” and the “Easterner” is usually the “Indian.” Again, these distinctions no longer make sense unless one is willing to admit that what is really being referred to is race or the color of the skin. A significant number of Indians have made America their home. They have raised their children and grandchildren in this country. They pay there taxes here, they vote here, and they cremate their dead here. How long will they continue to be “Indians”—and will they ever be seen as “Americans”?

A more basic question is: what makes a person an American or an Indian? Is the question related to race, or ancestry, or the place of birth, or cultural affiliation, or religion? In the pluralistic environment of today, the question has no easy answers. Identities are no longer simple. They are often hyphenated and have become complex. There are Indians who are very “American” in outlook and there are Americans who find comfort in only a very “Indian” worldview. Even to speak of an “American outlook” or an “Indian worldview” would raise eyebrows, because these phrases sound good but convey little if anything. All outlooks and all worldviews are now a common property of everyone in the diverse societies in which we all live. Everyone is free to embrace whatever he or she finds meaningful and fulfilling. Labels are just that—labels. They mean nothing. In a shrinking world, the terms East and West, or Americans and Indians, are becoming redundant. They are also loaded terms. Using them in certain contexts can attract the charge of racism even when such may not be the intent behind their use.

What all this means is that the ideas that depend on outmoded categories or changing social realities need to be re-visited and re-evaluated periodically. If such ideas remain frozen in time, they risk not only being ridiculed but also misunderstood in a different era. If a purpose of a Vedanta Society makes use of the East/West or American/Indian distinction, it would fall into the category of ideas that need re-examination and possible revision.

Shruti/Smrti Purposes

Which brings to mind the Vedanta approach to scripture. As is well known, it is customary in Vedanta to divide all of its scriptures into two classes: the shruti and the smrti. The Vedas are the shruti; all other texts are the smrti. The texts dealing, for instance, with ethical codes (dharma-sastra), mythology (purana), and history (itihasa) are the smrti. The Vedic teachings that deal with eternal entities don’t change with time and place. The insights related to the individual self (jivatman) and the supreme self (paramatman), and the relation between the two, are found in the shruti. They are true for all time and are unaffected with changes in society.

The smrti-texts use the Vedic insights and define their application in daily life through the laying down of ethical standards and laws. Through the description of life-stories and events, mythical and historical, the smrti-texts give form and life and beauty to the dry abstractions of philosophy. Most practitioners get to know their spiritual traditions through the smrti rather than the shruti. As scriptures both the shruti and the smrti deserve respect and command authority. Should there be any disagreement, however, in their teachings, it is the smrti that has to make way for the shruti. The shruti is the ultimate authority. The smrti’s authority holds sway only so long as it does not contradict the shruti.

This is a fine arrangement: it is able to accommodate a wide variety of texts after laying down a clear criterion about who controls whom. The eternal, unchanging truths control the application of those truths to constantly changing, renewing, and evolving society. The truths don’t change; but their application needs to be constantly updated to meet the changing needs and challenges of the external world. That is why the smrti-texts often undergo revision and that is why new smrti texts are written to fulfill new needs.

I would like to extend the shruti/smrti arrangement to the competing viewpoints regarding the purpose of a Vedanta Society. If a purpose of the Vedanta Society uses categories and stereotypes that change with time and place, then I would like to call that purpose a smrti-purpose. If a purpose is defined in terms of categories that do not change with time and place, then that would be a shruti-purpose. Among the viewpoints that we have seen, all those that make reference to East/West distinctions, or use categories such as “American” or “Indian,” would come under smrti-purposes. The only viewpoint that would qualify to be a shruti-purpose is the one that refers to a higher, divine power—the power that not only animates time and place but also transcends them. It is the power that is timeless and changeless.

The shruti-purpose of a Vedanta Society, then, is simply to be a source where seekers of truth can find truth. In Vedantic terms, the truth is that every one of us is divine. The source of our divinity is the source of our very being. We are that source, which in Sanskrit is called the Atman, the real “me” that remains hidden under layers of not just the body, mind and intellect but also under the ego, the false “I” we desperately cling to until our eyes open. The Vedanta Society is not essentially a temple or a monastery or a retreat. It may have the structure of an organization, but at heart it is really a community of truth-seekers. Sri Ramakrishna said, “Distinctions based on birth don’t exist among devotees.” Which is another way of saying that seekers of truth make no distinction on the basis of gender, caste, class, race, religion, culture or nationality. “The whole world is your own. No one is a stranger,” as Holy Mother reminds us. This is the perception that is expected of a spiritual seeker at the Vedanta Society.

A spiritual seeker is one who seeks the spirit, the Atman. A simple but often forgotten law of spiritual life is that our view of others is colored by our view of our own selves. If I see myself as a child of God, it then becomes easier for me to see others as children of God. If I strive to see myself as Atman, it becomes easier to remember that the same Atman resides in the hearts of others as well. On the other hand, if I see myself through the lens of changing and restrictive categories of gender, nationality, or culture, I will view others through the same lens as well. My perceptions then will get similarly colored and I will arrive at smrti-purposes rather than shruti-purposes of the Vedanta Society. The smrti-purposes of the Vedanta Society are important and deserve attention, but they would lose their utility and validity if they violated the shruti-purpose of the Vedanta Society.

Clearly, our relationship with the Vedanta Society is symbiotic. The purpose of a Vedanta Society is not really different from the purpose of our own lives. As Vedanta practitioners and devotees, our goal in life is God-realization or Self-realization. Everything we do in life must be directly or indirectly connected to that one goal. To the extent we are able to do it, we fulfill the purpose of a Vedanta Society. To the extent a Vedanta Society is able to help us do this, it fulfills the purpose of our own lives.

What we can do together for a Vedanta Society is exactly what the Vedanta Society can do for us all. We share its successes and we share its failures, because we share its purpose. Today we celebrate together. Beginning tomorrow we must once again resume reflecting, praying and meditating together, and holding ourselves in readiness to serve whoever needs help in the life’s journey that we all share.

My Reminiscences of Sri Ramakrishna
August 1, 2005
Ashtavakra Samhita: Study notes of Swami Shraddhananda
October 1, 2005
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The Purpose of a Vedanta Society