Reflections on Water
How Thoreau's Walden Pond Mixed with the Ganges
Yoga First Came to America with Swami Vivekananda
"The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges."
– Henry David Thoreau
In 1845 Henry David Thoreau moved two miles away from the home of his parents in Concord, Massachusetts to live alone by a small pond in a cabin in the woods on land owned by his close friend, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was there he penned the book that was to become the American classic, Walden.
Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days in his self-imposed retreat in the forest. During that time he wrote on the simplicity of life in the woods, the complex madness of New England society and his considerations of the eternal truths of life.
One early winter morning, sitting in his cabin, he looked out the window and saw about a hundred men working on the frozen pond, cutting the ice into blocks with horses and saws.
Scraping off the snow
Horse-drawn ice-cutting equipment
Walden Pond had exceptional purity, which made it slow to melt,
and the ice was prized for its crystal-clear, blue color.
The ice was placed on horse-drawn sleds and carried to railroad cars,
whose newly laid tracks ran across the western edge of Walden Pond.
From there it was transported to the wharves at Boston Harbor.
Horse-drawn sled hauling ice from pond
India Wharf, Boston Harbor circa 1830
At that time Boston was the major commercial port of the United States, especially for trade with the Orient. Between 1840 and 1870 the harbor was larger than that of New York City. One of the largest buildings in the harbor was India Wharf. Built in 1804, India Wharf was the headquarters of American trade with the East. The ground floor was stocked full of fabrics such as cottons, cashmeres, muslins, calicoes, seersuckers, chintzes and highly embroidered silks. There were jewels, carnelian necklaces and rubies. There was salt, opium and saltpeter for gunpowder. Spices such as cloves, saffron, black cardamom, ginger, coriander, cumin and curry filled the air with exotic aromas; and of course, there was tea and coffee.
At the Boston docks the ice was packed tightly into the insulated hold of a wooden ship and covered with sawdust, for an extended, four-month journey of over 16,000 miles. The ship would round the tip of Africa, cross the equator twice and eventually arrive in Calcutta, India, at the mouth of the Ganges River at the Bay of Bengal.
Packing ice into the hold of a ship
The Ice Trade with India
That cold wintry morning Thoreau witnessed a small part of the global ice trade. Unknown to most of us today, the shipping of ice from America to tropical climes was a large business during much of the nineteenth century.
Frederic Tudor, known as the "Ice King of New England," started the business in 1806. For many years he harvested the ice from the ponds and lakes of New England and shipped it south to New Orleans, Charleston, Cuba, the Caribbean and South America. Until 1833, however, his ice had never traveled to India. But that was about to change.
Frederic Tudor – The Ice King
Samuel Austin, a Boston businessman, owned several ships that traveled between Calcutta and Boston. But Austin had a problem: India was self-sufficient at the time and there were very few goods that India purchased from the West. When Austin's ships arrived in America from Calcutta, their holds were full of goods from the Orient; however, on the return voyage to India they were empty and loaded with rocks for ballast.
In early 1833 Austin asked Tudor if he would be interested in a partnership working together to ship ice to India. Austin would gain paying freight to India and Tudor would gain an investor as well as better access to a large, exotic, and very hot country full of plenty of Englishmen who knew the pleasures of ice. Tudor liked the idea, and by May of that year he had a boat packed full of "crystal blocks of Yankee coldness" on its way to India.
Charlestown Wharf, Boston – View of the Tudor Wharves 1863
Ice Comes to India
During the first half of the nineteenth century, India was not yet the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire. The country was still a 'business' directed by the East India Company, and although the Company made fantastic fortunes by its exploitation of the riches of India, a major problem confronted the British: oppressive tropical heat and diseases, which often involved fever. A joke going around those days was that Calcutta's deadly heat was more dangerous to British life than any uprising by the natives. In 1774 an English surgeon wrote of his experience: "When not a breath of air was there for many hours; man and every fowl of the air so sensibly felt it, that some species fell down dead."
Tudor, ever the businessman, saw great possibility in this problem. Based on his experience, he knew that the extreme heat of India would make ice greatly sought after. He also believed that anyone, English or Hindu, once they had experienced the pleasure of iced drinks, ice cream or any chilled food, would become hooked on ice; and he planned to be the one to supply it.
Calcutta Harbor 1881
On September 5, 1833, Tudor's ship, the Tuscany, after sailing over a hundred miles up the Hooghly (Ganges) river from the Bay of Bengal dropped anchor at the port of Calcutta. Not surprisingly, the English thought the reports of this ship carrying ice from America were a hoax. After all, the temperature was 90 degrees in the shade and had been for months. The ship must have been at sea for over 120 days to come from America to Asia. It had taken several days in the present stifling heat just to sail up the Hooghly. Surely no ice could survive such a journey.
But once it became known that the ship really did carry ice – one hundred, crystal-clear tons of it – the British members of the East India community, knowing the pleasures of frozen water, purchased it all. For months there was iced claret wine, chilled beer, ale, melons, fruits and other cold foods. Well-to-do English and Hindus also used the ice to calm fevers. The Calcutta Courier wrote: "The names of those who planned and have successfully carried through the adventure at their own cost deserve to be handed down to posterity with the names of other benefactors of mankind."
While a servant pulls a punkah fan, iced drinks are served in the heat of India.
Because of the success of this venture, members of the English elite built a stone ice house in Calcutta to store Tudor's future ice shipments. Tudor was granted a monopoly on the delivery of ice to the city, and the shipping of ice from America to India became the most lucrative part of the global ice trade. This was the beginning of a massive transfer of the waters of New England to India.
Ice House in Calcutta 1886
The Ice Trade and the Bhagavad-Gita
When Thoreau considered the ice trade, his vision sailed on metaphors far beyond the scope of business. The waters he envisioned flowed both east and west and carried not just natural elements, but culture, religion and philosophy as well. He also envisioned that after arriving in Calcutta, the New England ice of his Walden Pond would melt and eventually run downhill where it would join with the sacred water of the Ganges. He wrote:
"It appears that the sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well. In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions.
"I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges."
For Thoreau the water of the Ganges represents the religious philosophy of ancient India, preserved for thousands of years and epitomized in the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita. He sees the Ganges and Walden Pond mixed together, both lying in the same well of eternal water. This water is the symbol of the fundamental Law of life, what the Vedic civilization calls the Sanatana Dharma. This Dharma is the great theme of the Gita and it was a subject of consideration throughout Thoreau's stay at Walden.
The Bhagavad-Gita in Translation
Although he read only a few books during his stay at Walden Pond, his favorite, which he tells us he read every day, was the Bhagavad-Gita or Song of the Lord. The particular version he read was unique: at that time it was the only version in the world that had been translated into English. The translation was by Charles Wilkins, the first Englishman to learn Sanskrit proficiently. He had studied that most ancient of languages under a Brahmin pundit called Kalinatha while living in Varanasi, the traditional holy city and academic center of India.
Wilkins came to India in 1770 to work for the East India Company as a printer and writer. He quickly developed proficiency in Bengali and Persian and came to the notice of Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India. Hastings was an Oriental scholar and he encouraged Wilkins to learn Sanskrit. Over time Hastings became Wilkins patron, providing money for his living expenses while he worked.
Charles Wilkins – first translator of the Bhagavad-Gita into English
Hastings asked Wilkins to make a translation of the Gita, declaring the text to be “of a sublimity of conception, reasoning, and diction almost unequalled." After the translation was completed, Hastings wrote the preface, prophesying that these writings of the Indian philosophers “will survive when the British dominion in India shall have long ceased to exist, and when the sources which it once yielded of wealth and power are lost to remembrance.”
Wilkins also worked on the first English translation of the Mahabharata. Although he never completed the whole text, he did finish the Gita, which was published in England in 1785. His English version came into the possession of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who then lent it to Thoreau.
First page of the Bhagavad-Gita translated by Charles Wilkins
Thoreau and Emerson were among the first Americans to read the Gita. It opened them up to another world and moved them profoundly. Emerson wrote:
"I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad-Gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us."
Ralph Waldo Emerson – close friend of Thoreau
The Gita forms a tiny part of the Mahabharata, the great epic story of India. So sweeping is its scope, it is said of the Mahabharata: "Whatever is found here is found elsewhere. But, whatever is not here is nowhere else." It was considered necessary reading for all persons of the East India Company.
"Young (English) officers or civil servants arriving for the first time in their new home among the palm fronds and rice fields, or in the heat and dust of a desert cantonment, would commonly be told by some well-meaning old India hand that if they wished to grasp the essence of the place and its people they should read one book: the Mahabharata, the world’s oldest epic by far, and, with 90,000 verses exceeding the Bible and all of Shakespeare’s plays bundled together, by far the world’s longest and greatest epic poem." - Myths of Mankind, The Mahabharata by Paul Roberts
The Mahabharata contains stories of the life of Lord Krishna, who for many Hindus is the greatest of the incarnations of God. It considers action and its results in the realms of men, Gods, demons and animals. The book is filled with tales and teachings of Vedic culture pertaining to dharma, or action that upholds life. The story shows how subtle and difficult it can be to understand and practice dharma. The Mahabharata reaches its pinnacle in the Bhagavad-Gita, which takes place on a battlefield. There, Arjuna, the greatest warrior of his time, is faced with a profound dilemma: a great battle is about to begin, and he either has to kill his teachers and relatives or lay down his arms and let the forces of evil overrun the earth. Arjuna's primary concern is to follow dharma, but in this situation dharma is unclear and there is no right way to proceed; either way he acts, he will commit a sin. In the Gita, Lord Krishna exhaustively considers the different aspects of dharma and then reveals a Teaching that shows the way beyond dharma. His teaching, of necessity, goes beyond right and wrong and elevates the Gita to a transcendental level. It is why the Gita is considered the essence of the Mahabharata.
If we speak in terms of waters, the vessel of the Bhagavad-Gita carries the Sanatana Dharma, the eternal wisdom of life, pouring from the Himalayas and carrying the distillate of thousands of years of philosophical traditions and religious experiences. In Thoreau and Emerson, these waters combined with the more local, recent streams of Western Christian Protestant traditions, Greek and European philosophies, and the 'modern' rational intellectualism taught in the high colleges of Harvard.
The shipping of Ice to India did not outlast the nineteenth century. In 1874 the Royal Navy set up artificial ice-making operations in Madras and Calcutta, which quickly eliminated the need to ship natural ice from America to India. Within four years Walden water no longer melted into the Ganges.
Beginning with Emerson and Thoreau, the culture of America was affected by India and Indian philosophy such as the Gita and the Upanishads. In turn, the culture of India was affected by the thinking and world-view of the West. The Dutch, Portuguese and English had been in India for over a hundred years. They had come to exploit her natural wealth. But there was not just commerce in spices and frozen water; western ways of thinking also mixed with those of India. Over time, new ways of considering their culture began to arise among the Hindus. Eventually these newly mixed waters would pour back into the West when, for the first time in history, a living embodiment of India's Vedic culture would come to the shores of America in the person of Swami Vivekananda.
Vivekananda was the first man who understood and embodied Vedic culture to the English world. Although Charles Wilkins had translated the Bhagavad-Gita, it takes more than a translator-scholar to understand that text. One must possess the living experience to which the words are pointing. There is a world of difference between a translator-scholar and a man who has practiced and realized the Truth. Swami Vivekananda was that man.
“God has made different religions to suit different aspirants, times and countries. All doctrines are so many paths; but a path is by no means God Himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion.”
Sri Ramakrishna 1836-1886
Vivekananda was the foremost disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a God-Realizer of nineteenth century India, who spent most of his life as a priest in the Dakshineshwar Kali Temple, located on the banks of the Ganges in Calcutta, about twelve kilometers up the river from where Tudor's boats had unloaded their ice. Ramakrishna sprang from simple roots; his father was a poor but pious Brahmin farmer. Although he had minimal education, he could read and write Bengali and was well-versed in the folklore and religious stories of West Bengal. From wandering monks and holy men he learned the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita.
Dakshineswar Kali Temple on the Ganges River
Ramakrishna was remarkably permeable to the religious culture and natural phenomena that surrounded him. Throughout his youth he spontaneously experienced visions and trances that filled him with joy. He was possessed with another quality, one critical to spiritual growth: an overwhelming thirst for God. He was never satisfied with merely hearing about or studying spiritual phenomena; he had to have the experience himself. Like a drowning man desperate for air, he became focused on Kali, the Divine Mother, who is one of the great archetypal forms of God in Hinduism. He looked upon the image of the goddess Kali in the Dakshineshwar Temple as his mother and the Mother of the universe. He begged Her to show Herself to him; indeed, his longing to see Her became a kind of unceasing fever that drove him to the brink of madness – he was at the point of ending his life when She finally appeared. He describes the experience:
"I felt as if my heart were being squeezed like a wet towel. I was overpowered with a great restlessness and a fear that it might not be my lot to realize Her in this life. I could not bear the separation from Her any longer. Life seemed to be not worth living. Suddenly my glance fell on the sword that was kept in the Mother's temple. I determined to put an end to my life. When I jumped up like a madman and seized it, suddenly the blessed Mother revealed Herself. The buildings with their different parts, the temple, and everything else vanished from my sight, leaving no trace whatsoever, and in their stead I saw a limitless, infinite, effulgent Ocean of Consciousness. As far as the eye could see, the shining billows were madly rushing at me from all sides with a terrific noise, to swallow me up! I was panting for breath. I was caught in the rush and collapsed, unconscious. What was happening in the outside world I did not know; but within me there was a steady flow of undiluted bliss, altogether new, and I felt the presence of the Divine Mother."
Ramakrishna lived as a devotee of the Mother for the rest of his life, yet he was also moved to experience the goals and Gods of other traditions. He accepted various teachers of the different mystical traditions of Hinduism. He practiced Tantra, where he experienced the full ascent of Kundalini Shakti, which is the highest goal of yogis. He became a Vaishnaiva Bhakti, or lover of Krishna. Believing Krishna to be the only male in the Universe, Ramakrishna became his female devotee. He acted like a woman, dressing and gesturing as Krishna's lover. His speech changed and he became feminine, moving freely with women, who accepted him as one of their own. Finally, he attained the vision of Krishna and merged into him, losing himself utterly. Filled with motherly tenderness, he cared for an image of Lord Rama as a baby, until he was blessed with the vision of Rama himself.
He went on to accept other teachers of different traditions of Hinduism as well. Based on his overwhelming love of God, he showed himself to be a unique student and quickly mastered spiritual practices that usually demand a lifetime. There were also periods where he adopted the devotional paths of Christianity and Islam. He would lose all interest in the Divine Mother and become a mad Christian mystic or Sufi until he had the vision of the deity of the faith.
One of Ramakrishna’s greatest teachers was Totapuri, a naked itinerant monk. Totapuri was a giant of a man who had trained in Advaita Vedanta since he was a youth. Advaita, or Non-dualism, is the perfect consideration of the inherent nature of everything, whether it be the conventional world or mystical phenomena. The teachings of Advaita state that everything is consciousness and the appearance of the world is illusory. What is meant by “illusory?” A person sees a snake in a dream and is afraid, but upon awakening the fear disappears. There is no need to do anything about the snake; it was an illusion. Similarly, the appearance of the world is illusory. The world is not in truth an field of objects over and against a separate "I". That point of view, though almost universal, is what Advaita calls avidya, or ignorance. The Truth is one seamless display of consciousness.
Totapuri was a particularly strict and uncompromising Advaitan. He looked upon the world disdainfully; even the Gods and Goddesses worshipped throughout India were mere fantasies to him. Devotion to them was the occupation of a child. Nonetheless, when he spotted Ramakrishna on the grounds at Dakshineshwar, he immediately recognized him as a great spiritual practitioner, one ready for the highest realization. He approached him and asked if he would undertake the practice of non-dualism. Ramakrishna agreed.
Totapuri offered to initiate Ramakrishna into the Advaitic path and told him that to do so he needed to become a Sannyasi, or formal renunciate. He made it clear that Ramakrishna must renounce not only the world, but even his identity as a child of the Mother. This, Totapuri pointed out, was but another form of clinging to duality and an obstacle to the realization of non-difference of self and God. Ramakrishna responded that in order to accept such an initiation he needed to ask permission of the Mother. Totapuri assented and, then, to his amusement, watched as Ramakrishna went to the temple and returned, saying the Mother had agreed.
Ramakrishna meditated with Totapuri for several days. However, even after days and nights of one-pointed effort, he was powerless to penetrate a fundamental obstacle. Later, he told his devotees:
"I failed to bring my mind to Brahman – the Absolute. I had no difficulty in withdrawing the mind from all earthly objects, but I could not obliterate from my consciousness the all too familiar form of the Blissful Mother who appeared before me as a living reality and would not allow me to pass beyond. She was all name and form! Again and again I tried to concentrate my mind upon the Brahman, but every time the Mother’s form stood in my way. In despair I said again to the guru, 'It is hopeless. I cannot raise my mind to the unconditioned state and come face to face with my Self – the Absolute.'
"Totapuri said sharply, 'What! You cannot do it? But you must.' He cast his eyes about the dimly lighted room and finding in a corner a piece of broken glass, he took it up and pressing its point between my eyebrows said, 'Concentrate thy mind on this point!' Then with a stern determination I again sat to meditate.
"I felt an appalling pain between my eyes, and in the heart of that agony the gracious form of the Mother danced like a flame! I used my discrimination now. As a sword cuts to pieces a body, so with my discrimination I severed her in two. Nothing obstructed me now. I at once soared beyond name and form, above pain and pleasure, and I found myself at one with the Absolute. Before that supreme ecstasy the senses and the mind stopped their functions. The body became motionless like a corpse. The universe rolled away from my vision – even space itself melted away. Everything was reduced to ideas that floated like shadows on the dim silence of the mind. Only the faint consciousness of “I, I” repeated itself in dull monotony. My soul became the Self of Reality, and all idea of dualism of subject and object was gone. My Self knew no bounds. All life was one infinite bliss! Beyond speech, beyond articulate experience, and beyond."
For three days Ramakrishna remained completely absorbed in samadhi, a state without differences. Totapuri was amazed: "Is it possible that he has attained in a single day what it took me forty years of strenuous practice to achieve? It is nothing short of a miracle!" Before he left, Totapuri gave him the name Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the name by which he is known today. Paramahamsa is a special class of Yogi. The name refers to a supreme (Para) swan (hamsa), which when presented with a mixture of milk and water, has the ability to take only the milk and leave the water. How does it do this? It secretes the bitter bile of perfect discrimination (viveka), which causes the milk to curdle. Then, it eats only the curds of Truth and leaves the water of ignorance behind. Ramakrishna was a Paramahamsa because he had this ability. His vision was not obscured by ignorance and he saw God everywhere and in everything.
These experiences of God with and without form, with and without duality, gave rise to his unique and remarkable claim: the practices, paths, Gods and goals of all religions are true and the same in their import.
By the time Vivekananda met him, Ramakrishna embodied a range of spiritual experiences and understanding incomprehensible to a western mind. Even these things do not fully communicate the man. All his life he remained innocent of his own attainments, yielding praise and submitting everything to God. He had the ability to transmit his experience to others and he transformed the lives of all around him. He spoke to simple people in their own language; yet he could debate and defeat great scholars on the most difficult and subtle points of scripture. When asked by a disciple about the source of his seemingly inexhaustible knowledge, he replied; "I have not read, but I have heard the learned. I have made a garland of their knowledge, wearing it round my neck, and I have given it as an offering at the feet of the Mother."
The Brahmo Samaj and the Bengali Renaissance
The life of Ramakrishna coincided with what is called today, the Bengali Renaissance. This revival was born of the English-Christian influence in India over several hundred years. The Renaissance affected every part of society, including literature, art and religion. The Brahmo Samaj, or Society of God, was the most well-known religious movement to develop during this time. It was founded by Ram Mohun Roy, a man who is legendary in India and often referred to as the "maker of modern India." Roy had developed a new interpretation of the Sanatana Dharma, one critical of traditional Hinduism. He wrote: "The Realization of One Supreme Being can be attained by individuals without the assistance of any Avatar, saint, religious authority or revelation."
Ram Mohun Roy 1774-1833
Influenced by the iconoclastic thinking of Western culture, his intent was to reform Hinduism. The members of the Brahmo Samaj had no faith in Vedic scriptures and did not believe in God-men or Avatars. Their movement also called for the education of women, the abolition of the dowry system and the improvement of education. They believed that "service of man is the service of God," and they stood against all caste distinctions and criticized the worship of idols. Among the many changes he brought to Hindu society, Ram Mohun Roy became known as the man responsible for outlawing Sati, the burning of widows.
Keshab Chandra Sen 1838-1884
After the death of Ram Mohun Roy, Keshab Chandra Sen became the leader of a break-away version of the Brahmo Samaj. Keshab was known as a brilliant, western-educated man, who spoke eloquent English. Like Roy, he also had no faith in God-men or idol worship and was passionate about reforming Hinduism.
Keshab lived in Calcutta and had heard a great deal about Sri Ramakrishna. Finally, he decided to pay him a visit. Expecting to find a fundamentalist Hindu believer, he instead encountered an illuminated, God-conscious man, sensitive to the finest details of the life around him. Ramakrishna was a living example of what Keshab had been striving to express through the teachings of the Brahmo Samaj. Keshab wrote: “Before I met Ramakrishna I had a poor conception of religion – I spent my time rampaging about reforms. But now that I have known him, I know what a true life of religion consists of.” Keshab was amazed that Ramakrishna, although unlettered, penetrated to the essence of every question asked of him and had no problem debating learned scholars.
Ramakrishna loved Keshab and would sometimes attend meetings of the Brahmo Samaj at his house. Once, after observing a Brahmo meeting, Ramakrishna said:
"I went to Keshab’s religious service. After a sermon on the glory of God, the leader said, 'Let us commune with him.' I thought, 'They will now go into the inner world and stay a long time.' Hardly had a few minutes passed when they all opened their eyes. I was astonished. Can anyone find him after so slight a meditation? After it was all over, when we were alone, I spoke to Keshab about it. 'I watched all of your congregation communing with their eyes shut. You know what it reminded me of? Sometimes in Dakshineswar I have seen under the trees a flock of monkeys sitting stiff and looking the very picture of innocence. But their thoughts belied the picture they made: they were thinking and planning their campaign of robbing certain gardens of fruits, roots, and other edibles. Oh yes! They were thinking of swooping down on those unprotected gardens in a few moments. The communing that your followers did with God today is no more serious than were those monkeys trying to look innocent of mischief!'"
Vivekananda – at that time called Narendra – was a member of Keshab's Brahmo Samaj. It was Keshab who first introduced Ramakrishna to the wider world of India and also to the man who was to become his greatest devotee.
Ramakrishna going into samadhi at the house of Keshab Sen
He is surrounded by members of the Brahmo Samaj.
Narendra and Ramakrishna
Narendra shared many of the criticisms of Hinduism made by the Brahmo Samaj, but he would not do away with what he thought to be the essence of Vedic culture. His main objection was that the Brahmo Samaj had thrown out the fundamental thing: the experience of God. Though its members were critical of idolatry, in their religious services they offered long, elaborate praises of the glory of God. Narendra wanted to find someone who did not just praise God, but actually knew Him. When he asked the leaders of the Brahmo Samaj if they had seen God or spoken to Him, each replied that he had not. Narendra, not satisfied with this response, continued to look for someone who had.
Narendra attended school at Scottish Church College in Calcutta, a Christian Liberal Arts school. The curriculum was taught in English, a language originally discouraged by the East India Company as unsuitable for native Indian instruction. However, under the guiding influence of Ram Mohun Roy, the school carried out all its teaching in English. Roy also helped lay out the curriculum and bring in the first students. He wrote: "The English language is the lever which, as the instrument of conveying the entire range of knowledge, is destined to move all Hindustan."
The far-reaching influence of this institution moved not only Hindustan, but was to move America as well. Scottish Church College is the same college that Paramahamsa Yoganananda, the author of Autobiography of a Yogi, later attended.
Paramahamsa Yogananda 1893-1952
Bhaktivedanta Swami, the founder of the Hari Krishna movement, also attended the college.
Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada 1896-1977
Both these men would eventually come to the United States. Yogananda became the first Indian teacher to spend most of his life in America (from 1920 to 1952). There, he started the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF). Bhaktivedanta Swami spent nearly twelve years in America (from 1965 to 1977), where he founded the Hari Krishna movement.
Narendra excelled in his classes. He studied the great western philosophers including Darwin and Spencer as well as Indian culture, philosophy and music. In one lecture, the Principal of the school, Dr William Hastie, sought to explain the word "entranced" to the class. It was from William Wordsworth's, The Excursion:
". . . then, my spirit was entranced
With joy exalted to beatitude;
The measure of my soul was filled with bliss,
And holiest love; as earth, sea, air, with light,
With pomp, with glory, with magnificence!"
When the students asked what was meant by "entranced," Hastie suggested that if anyone wanted to know the meaning, they should visit Sri Ramakrishna. Several students followed up on his suggestion. Soon after, Narendra met Ramakrishna and asked the same question he put to all the prominent men he met: "Sir, have you seen God?"
Ramakrishna immediately replied, "Yes, I have seen God, I see Him as I see you here only more clearly. God can be seen. One can talk to him. But, who cares for God? People shed torrents of tears for their wives, children, wealth and property, but who weeps for the vision of God? If one cries sincerely for God, one can surely see Him."
Looking into the eyes of this living God-man, Narendra was transfixed. Although part of him immediately thought that Ramakrishna was "raving mad," another part told him he had just met a man who really did see God and actually talked to him.
Narendra was strongly influenced by the learned doubt of his Western education. Although he would eventually come to believe that Ramakrishna had spoken the truth, it would not be until he had tested his Guru again and again. Ramakrishna overruled the protestations of other devotees and insisted they not interfere with Narendra's aggressive inquiries. Once, hearing that Ramakrishna could not touch money as it made him ill, Narendra secretly put some rupees under his master's mattress. As soon as Ramakrishna sat on the bed, he became ill and cried out in pain.
Ramakrishna did not hesitate to give Narendra the living experience of what he taught. One day Narendra was discussing with a friend Ramakrishna’s insistence that everything is God:
"Can it be," he said, "that the water pot is God, that the drinking vessel is God, that everything we see and all of us are God?" Naren laughed scornfully at the idea and his friend joined in . . . While they were laughing, Ramakrishna came upon them, "What are you talking about?" He asked Naren affectionately; then without waiting for an answer, he touched Naren....
"And then," Naren would relate, "at the marvelous touch of the Master, my mind underwent a complete revolution. I was aghast to realize that there really was nothing whatever in the entire universe but God. I remained silent, wondering how long this state of mind would continue. It didn’t pass off all day. I got back home, and I felt just the same there; everything I saw was God. I sat down to eat, and I saw that everything – the plate, the food, my mother who was serving it and myself – everything was God and nothing but God. I swallowed a couple of handfuls and then sat still without speaking. My mother asked me lovingly, 'Why are you so quiet? Why don’t you eat?' That brought me back to everyday consciousness, and I began eating again. But, from then on, I kept having the same experience, no matter what I was doing – eating, drinking, sitting, lying down, going to college, strolling along the street. It was a kind of intoxication...."
“When I did at last return to normal consciousness I felt convinced that the state I had been in was a revelation of non-dualistic experience. So then I knew that what is written in the Scriptures about the experience is all true."
– Ramakrishna and his Disciples by Christopher Isherwood
Even when Ramakrishna was suffering from throat cancer, Narendra silently thought to himself, "If Ramakrishna is really an Avatar or incarnation of God, let him tell me so now." Slowly opening his eyes and looking up from his bed, Ramakrishna gazed directly at Naren. Then, speaking with great difficulty, he said, "That One who was Rama and Krishna is Ramakrishna."
Before his death in 1886, Ramakrishna called Narendra to his bedside. He looked at his disciple and entered into samadhi. Narendra felt a force enter into him and he lost consciousness. When he awoke, Ramakrishna said, "I have given you everything I possess, now I am no more than a fakir, a penniless beggar. By the powers that I have given you, you will shake the world with your intellect and spiritual power. Not until then will you return to the source from which you came." Although rare, this transmission of spiritual force from guru to disciple has occurred before in Indian spiritual history. It is a gift of the accumulated fruits of a teacher's life and spiritual realization. Ramakrishna had poured all his spiritual power into Narendra and chose him as his spiritual successor.
Vivekananda after the Death of Ramakrishna
After the death of his Guru, and bearing the weight of responsibility for fellow disciples, as well as the obligation to share his Master's teaching with the world, Vivekananda wandered throughout India from the Himalayas in the North to the southern tip of Rameswaram. He was overwhelmed by the terribly poor condition of India's masses, who existed in the midst of the exquisite spiritual wisdom of the Vedic tradition. He saw for himself that people who had an empty stomach had little desire or ability to consider the high teachings of Indian religious philosophy. As he wandered, he eventually came to the southern tip of the Indian continent. He swam to a small rock offshore and meditated for three days on the past, present and future of India. Today that rock is known as the Vivekananda Rock Memorial and a temple has been built there. Vivekananda wrote:
"At Cape Comorin [the southern tip of India] sitting in Mother Kumari's [God in the form of the Virgin Divine Mother] temple, sitting on the last bit of Indian rock – I hit upon a plan: We are so many sanyasis [religious renunciates] wandering about, and teaching the people metaphysics – it is all madness. Did not our Gurudeva use to say, 'An empty stomach is no good for religion?' We as a nation have lost our individuality and that is the cause of all mischief in India. We have to raise the masses."
Vivekananda Rock Memorial
This is the small rock island at the southern tip of India called Cape Comorin or Kanyakumari.
It is said to be where he attained enlightenment.
From that time on, Vivekananda aimed to uplift the Indian people through secular knowledge, education and social aid. He wrote, "To the hungry, religion comes in the form of bread." Several of his brother monks did not agree they should sacrifice their attempts to gain personal spiritual liberation and instead devote their lives to helping others. But, Ramakrishna had left Vivekananda in charge, and this was exactly what he instructed them to do.
Still, Vivekananda was like a fruit tree, heavy with the combined fruits of Vedic and western knowledge. Even during the time of his college days, Dr William Hastie had said of him, "Narendra is really a genius. I have travelled far and wide but I have never come across a lad of his talents and possibilities, even in German universities, among philosophical students." He had been gifted with a brilliant mind and the ability to impart what he knew to others. Blessed with both experience and understanding of the Vedic tradition, he was a Realizer and born to teach.
One day, during a casual discussion, one of the Vivekananda's admirers and friends, the Dewan of Porbandar said, "Swamiji, I am afraid you cannot do much in this country. Few will appreciate you here. You ought to go to the West where people will understand you and your worth. Surely you can throw a great light upon Western culture by preaching the Sanatana Dharma! The poverty ridden illiterate people of our country are not yet ready to receive the message of Vedanta. Why don't you attend the Parliament of Religions to be held in Chicago a few months hence? There you will represent and elaborate the true Hinduism of which your Guru, Sri Ramakrishna, was the living embodiment."
Vivekananda would never abandon the social upliftment of the masses of India. However, he realized that much good might come of commerce with the ideas and technology of the West. If he could bring the religious wisdom of India to America, perhaps the West could help with its genius of scientific knowledge, modern agriculture and industry, and help rid India of it's oppressive poverty.
The World Parliament of Religions
In May of 1893 Vivekananda set sail for the Columbian Exposition, or World's Fair, to be held in Chicago, Illinois in the fall of that year. The Fair was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World. Over forty-five countries were invited to exhibit in fields such as Architecture, Manufacturing, Craft and Technology. Over six months, 27 million people attended the fair and it set the record for the largest attendance of any event held in America.
The World Parliament of Religions was to be held along with the World's Fair. Vivekananda came to speak as the representative of Hinduism.
The Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building at Chicago World’s Fair
This was a huge building and still ranks amongst the largest buildings in the world in both footprint and size.
The streets and buildings of the fair were electrically illuminated at night.
The World Parliament of Religions presented the "Substantial Unity of Religions." It was the first formal gathering of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions ever held in America. The nature of the event, the gathering of so many different religious traditions on a single stage, was a picture of the dramatic change in religious understanding taking place at the beginning of the twentieth century. Max Muller, the great German Indologist, who had moved to England to gain better access to the collection of Sanskrit texts held by the East India Company, wrote: "The Parliament stands unique, unprecedented in the whole history of the world."
Site of the Chicago World's Fair, the World Parliament of Religions 1893
Late in the afternoon, on September 11, 1893, the opening day of the Parliament,
Vivekananda addressed an assembly of over 4000 people in the Memorial Art Palace.
Memorial Art Palace
After hours of presentations by others on the philosophical ideas and beliefs of different religions, his turn finally came. Dressed in the saffron robes and turban of a Hindu monk, in a hall filled to overflowing, he rose. Then, instead of "Ladies and Gentleman," the typical introductory words of the previous speakers, Vivekananda greeted the people with, "Sisters and Brothers of America." What followed was an unprecedented two minutes of thunderous applause as the audience rose to its feet. It was an amazing response, as if pent-up waters had been released from a long-standing dam. Vivekananda had gone directly to the heart of what the Parliament was about and touched it.
Vivekananda in San Francisco 1900
After the Parliament Vivekananda went on a lecture tour of the United States.
He continued: "It fills my heart with unspeakable joy to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions [the Vedic Culture of India] . . ." He was not mixing the waters of religious philosophy in an interfaith council; he was not speaking of tolerance. His was a living recognition of the common source and goal of all religions. He said:
“Not only toleration, for so-called toleration is often blasphemy, and I do not believe in it. I believe in acceptance. Why should I tolerate? Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live. Is it not blasphemy to think that you and I are allowing others to live? 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.”
Vivekananda had seen the idea put forth in the teachings of the Brahmo Samaj and embodied in his teacher, Ramakrishna. But most of all, he had experienced the truth of it for himself. He said:
"I will quote to you brethren a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest childhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: 'As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O' Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee'. . . The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: 'Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.' ”
His speech was powerful and full of the spontaneous authority of one who had realized what he spoke about. The people loved him and he became an overnight sensation. The news of his appearance spread quickly across America and the world. Posters went up all over Chicago. William James, the great Harvard Professor, religious philosopher and psychologist, who believed that the proper study of religions should focus on the genius or experience in a religious person and not the institutions themselves, found in Vivekananda the "paragon of Vedantists." Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian poet, wrote: "If you want to know India, study Vivekananda."
Poster of Vivekananda put up in Chicago and across America in 1893
He was handsome to look at, spoke eloquent English and had sat at the feet of one of the greatest saints of India. He had studied Hinduism, Vedanta, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. He knew the great western philosophers from the time of the Greeks. He was not merely a philosopher or a simple believer; he was a highly educated practitioner and a renunciate monk, devoting his whole life to what he had realized. He embodied the wisdom of Vedanta, the oldest still-living religion in the world, and he came from India, a country that had given birth to several of the world's major religions.
For the next three years Vivekananda traveled throughout America and Europe. In America he was nicknamed the "Cyclonic Hindu" for his brilliant delivery and wide-ranging presentations. In a class in London on Maya and Illusion, the audience was so overwhelmed by his talk that many shed tears.
Vivekananda teaching under a tree in America
Unknown to most of us, it was Vivekananda who brought the first waters of yoga and meditation to the West. With his appearance, the Vedas, Gita and Upanishads, gained their first living representation in this country. To be clear, the "Yoga" brought by Vivekananda was about God Realization, liberation and freedom. The Hatha Yoga exercises called Yoga by most Westerners today played a very small role in his teachings. He was, like his teacher Ramakrishna, concerned first and foremost with God Realization.
Pratap Chandra Mazumdar
When I say that Vivekananda was the first to bring the teachings of Vedanta to America, I must clarify: Vivekananda was the first to speak of these things from the point of view of a Realizer. Pratap Chandra Mazumdar, a member of the Brahmo Samaj and related to Keshab Sen, had come to the United States about 10 years before Vivekananda and had sat beside Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions. He had met Ramakrishna and honored him as a great master, and wrote what many call the first biography of the Master. However, Mazumdar's point of view was not that of a Realizer of the Vedic Tradition. Mazumdar was also a delegate at the World Parliament, and he presented the synthesis of the Vedic tradition put forth by the Brahmo Samaj. Vivekananda was not just a teacher of Eastern Religions or their sympathy with other religions, he was a true holy man, a Realizer, and on that basis when he addressed the parliament, he also spoke to other Hindu's when he called for God Realization as the foundation for all religion.
Vivekananda taught that, though the practices and beliefs of various religions might differ, what they ultimately speak of is the same. It does not matter what religion one follows, what matters is Reality, and God is Reality.
Vivekananda in New York 1894
His focus was on the individual gaining experience of that Reality, not on what name it is to be called by. He brought a rational approach to the field of religion, the most emotional of subjects. It was experience and action, not belief or faith that lay at the root of what Vivekananda taught. This is the context in which he brought the teachings of Vedanta to the West. And, though he rarely spoke about it publicly, he personified the traditional relationship of a devotee with his Guru, the eternal basis of the religious traditions of India. He spoke of his Master, Ramakrishna, in New York:
“For the first time I found a man who dared to say that he saw God, that religion was a reality to be felt, to be sensed in an infinitely more intense way than we can sense the world. I actually saw that religion could be given. One touch, one glance, can change a whole life. I have read about Buddha and Christ and Mohammed, about all those different luminaries of ancient times, how they would stand up and say, ‘Be thou whole,’ and the man became whole. I now found it to be true, and when I myself saw this man, all skepticism was brushed aside. It could be done. Religion is not talk, or doctrines, or theories; nor is it sectarianism. It is the relation between the soul and God. Religion does not consist in erecting temples, or building churches, or attending public worship. It is not to be found in books, or in words, or in lectures, or in organizations. Religion consists in realization. As a fact, we all know that nothing will satisfy us until we know the truth for ourselves. However we may argue, however much we may hear, but one thing will satisfy us, and that is our own realization; and such an experience is possible for every one of us if we will only try.”
After Vivekananda gave his address to the Parliament, The New York Herald wrote: "Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation."
Vivekananda in New York City 1894
Return to India
In 1897 Vivekananda returned to India as their now world-famous son. He had carried the holy waters of the Vedic tradition to the West. In doing so, he thrilled his own countrymen, showing to them and the world the tremendous riches of their ancient culture. Romain Rolland, writing in the The Life of Swami Vivekananda, describes the scene when he arrived back in Sri Lanka:
"A mighty shout arose from the human throng covering the quays of Colombo. A multitude flung itself upon him to touch his feet. Flowers were thrown before his path. Hundreds of visitors, rich and poor, brought him offerings. And Vivekananda once again re-crossed the land of India from the South to the North, as he had done formerly as a beggar along its roads.”
Vivekananda being welcomed in Calcutta - 1897
The reception was repeated in cities across India. In Madras (now called Chennai), thousands turned out to welcome him home. Vivekananda stayed nine days and gave many public talks. He was lodged at the building that had been built by Frederic Tudor, the Ice King of New England. It was the Madras Ice House, a huge, heavily insulated concrete building, constructed on Marina Beach, directly on the ocean. The building had stored some of the Walden ice that had been shipped from America to India nearly fifty years before.
Ice House in Madras 1851
Chennai Ice house 2013
Windowed apartments were constructed around the outside of the original cylinder
as living and work spaces.
Of the three ice houses built by Tudor in India, the Chennai Ice house is the only one left standing. It is now a museum dedicated to Vivekananda, run by the Chennai Branch of the Ramakrishna Math, the religious monastic order founded by Vivekananda. What Thoreau had written about that winter in Walden Pond had come true:
"I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges."
The Return of the Waters
"The Great Atlantic has been subdued! The eastern and western hemispheres are distinct no more. How unspeakable the influence which that one event must exercise upon the future destinies of both nations."
– The front page of the Bombay Times, the very first edition, published 1838
A pilgrimage had taken place both physically and metaphysically. The sacred waters of the Ganges, the ancient wisdom of the East, were carried to America in the person of Vivekananda and poured into the world view of American and Western religious thinking. Vivekananda, had lived on the Ganges River with his teacher, Ramakrishna, close to where Tudor's frozen New England waters had been delivered to Calcutta. Now he had returned to India and was staying where those waters had once been stored.
In America today, Yoga, Meditation, Ayurveda and Vedic Astrology [Jyotish] are widely known and practiced. What began as a seed, planted in the ground of the American psyche by the first translation of the Gita read by Thoreau and Emerson, and which was in turn watered by Vivekananda, has now, 120 years later, grown into a young tree. The tremendous interest that we in the West have in Eastern spiritual traditions, is attributable in great measure to Swami Vivekananda.
This year, 2013 is the 150th celebration of the birth of Vivekananda. All over India and the world, a great variety of events have been planned to remember who he was and what he did. Few at the time saw the full import of what he did.
“It is very difficult to evaluate his [Swami Vivekananda's] importance in the scale of world history. It is certainly far greater than any Western historian or most Indian historians would have suggested at the time of his death. The passing of the years and the many stupendous and unexpected events which have occurred since then suggest that in centuries to come he will be remembered as one of the main molders of the modern world, especially as far as Asia is concerned, and as one of the most significant figures in the whole history of Indian religion.” – A.L. Basham, Indian Scholar and author of The Wonder that Was India
Pilgrimage - the Kashi Yatra
The 'mingling of waters' has been the theme of our consideration. We have seen it in the shipping of American Ice to India by Frederic Tudor and the carrying of the waters of the Ganges, the sacred wisdom of India, to America in the person of Swami Vivekananda. In both of these cases, 'waters' that came from far away were mingled with those that are local and what is local is taken far away. The mingling of elements taken from different holy places has been a theme of rituals carried out for thousands of years in India. The greatest of these is the well-known pilgrimage or Yatra performed even to this day in India. It is called the Kashi Yatra:
The waters of the Ganges are taken from the sacred city of Kashi (Benaras) and carried, barefoot (now, some take a train), about 1500 miles south to Ramesvaram at the southern tip of India. There, they are poured over a Siva lingam (a stone icon of God in the form of Shiva) in an act of worship. Then, some sand is collected from the nearby beach and made into three small lingams which are worshipped there. One lingam is taken and dissolved again back into the sea. The other two are carried as sand back to the North. At Prayag, in Allabahad, where the three sacred rivers of the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati all meet, one part of the sand is again shaped into a lingam, worshipped by the devotee and then immersed into the sacred river. Finally, the last portion of sand is carried back to Kasi, the place where the water was first taken. There, it is formed again into a lingam, worshipped by pouring the water of the Ganges upon it and dissolved back into the Ganges at last.
All things mix together in this ancient ritual: The water of the holy River Ganges, flowing from the hair of the great Lord Shiva in the Himalayas, is taken from that sacred river as it passes through Shiva's holy city of Benaras and then carried by the devotee to the tip of South India where it is poured over a lingam, another sacred image of Shiva, at the same place and on thelingam-stone where Lord Shiva was worshipped by the divine incarnation of Vishnu - Lord Rama, in theTreta Yuga over ten thousand years ago, as written about in the Ramayana.
Lord Rama pouring water over the Lingam of Lord Shiva as told in the Ramayana. Rama had killed the Brahmin-Ravana and was doing penance for killing a Brahmin and also appeasing Lord Shiva, who had been fond of Ravana.
In every ritual, there are different ways to perform it. All over the world, those who follow the rules of rituals to the letter are called the "orthodox." It is they who tend to take over religious organizations and it is they who define what it is to be a "true" devotee, practitioner or believer. Jesus once said of them; they tend to follow the letter of the law and lose the spirit. That is why it is so important that living God-men, true Realizers, age after age, come to purify and interpret religious traditions, pouring out the living waters of Realization and rescuing them from stagnant pools of mere laws and beliefs. This is what Jesus did for Judaism and Buddha for Hinduism. It is only the God-men, Realizers who know the Truth of the scriptures beyond orthodoxy that know how to interpret them rightly. The waters of India have been richer in God-men than any other culture in history. Many have said that among all the nations of the world, this has been the greatest wealth of India. There is a story about one of these God-men who performed the Kashi-Yatra a long time ago. His name was Eknath. This is his story.
Eknath 1533-1599 Marathi saint, scholar and poet
There was once a Saint named Eknath who undertook the Kashi Yatra. In those days, one traveled by foot on the pilgrimage from Kasi to Rameshwaram and a person would walk nearly 1500 miles carrying water from the Ganges in a small container.
Eknath had been traveling for nearly six months and was now walking the final miles to Rameshwaram in the furnace-like heat of southern India. The sand was burning his feet, but he only had a few more miles to go before he would finally reach his goal. Then, he saw a donkey which had fainted on the sand, its tongue hanging out and parched with thirst. Eknath felt pity on seeing the plight of the donkey. He took the only water he had, the sacred water he had been carrying in a pitcher from the Ganges in Benaras, and poured it into the mouth of the donkey.
The other pilgrims, who had traveled the whole way with him, rebuked him, ‘O terrible sinner! You have offered the holy water of the Ganges that was meant for ‘Abishekam’ (devotional bath) of Lord Siva to a donkey! We prohibit you from traveling with our group!’ Eknath replied, ‘The Lord whom I worship, has come five miles before our destination in the form of a donkey and has accepted the water I have brought for Him.’
This is how one Realizer of God, demonstrated the true meaning of an ancient ritual. He went far beyond the orthodox interpretation and fulfilled the 'spirit' of the ritual.
Often things arise that test our orthodox beliefs, they show themselves as dilemmas, choices between equally undoable alternatives. There are situations that ritual knowledge has no answer for. It is exactly here that the true meaning of what we are about, the real God that we worship and the meaning of a scripture becomes evident. This was the situation with Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita when he could not find a right way to act. There, Lord Krishna, fully cognizant of the dilemma inherent in all the scritpures and modes of action, called him to and Understanding beyond any and all actions and sang to him the Bhagavad-Gita. This was also the situation with Eknath as he neared Ramesvaram.
“And if any generation is without living Masters, then its children are without Light, even if holy books are piled up, one upon another, like a fortress in the night.”
- Adi Da
Adi Da Samraj- American Born Spiritual Master 1939-2008
The Three Christs of Ypsilanti
Many things have changed from the time of Thoreau. With high speed internet, I can bring the whole world into my small cottage in the Himalayas. With a few strokes of the keyboard, I can know the weather at Walden Pond. Thoreau and Emerson were amongst the first Americans to read the Bhagavad-Gita. Vivekananda burst upon the American culture in a flood of foreign ideas bringing the world view of the most ancient religion on earth. This began a little more than 120 years ago in the first trickle of waters.
But now, in our generation and for the first time in human history, if we go online, or visit nearly any library or bookstore, we will see before us, the fundamentalist teachings and beliefs of every religion in the world, placed together, side by side. Every religion, God or Gods, holy man, absolute truth, avatar, savior, holy scripture, exclusive practice and secret technique is openly available. Different ideas of what is freedom or liberation and what is right or wrong, are placed before us as absolute doctrines of fundamental truth. We are flooded with waters on every side.
My Teacher, Adi Da, spoke about this situation:
"Particularly in the time in which we now live, when the ideas of all the provinces of earth are gathering together for the first time in human history, and all the absolute dogmas find themselves casually associated, to be judged like a crowd of silly Napoleons or mad Christ's in an asylum, the complex mind of Everyman is remembering itself all at once. Therefore we are obliged to discover the Truth again by penetrating the bizarre consciousness of all the races combined as one."
When Adi Da used the metaphor of "a crowd of silly Napoleons or mad Christ's in an asylum," he was referring to the story of Milton Rokeach, who was the doctor in charge of a mental hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan in the 1960s. During that time, three individuals were committed to his institution, each of whom thought he was Jesus Christ. Rokeach put them all in a room together (the same 'room' in which I propose that all of us are now in) and wrote a book about what he observed. The book is called the Three Christs of Ypsilanti. It describes what took place with three individuals, who each possessed mutually contradictory, fundamentalist beliefs. The 1893 World Parliament of Religions, was a symbol of this exact situation and is a dramatic picture of our world today where technology has brought us all together in the "same room."
World Parliament of Religions
The stage is filed with Representatives of the different religions of the world - 1893
At the Parliament in Chicago, over 45 representatives of the widely varying religions of the world, came together on the same stage for the first time in history. But, not everyone who was invited attended. The Prebstyerian Church of America passed a resolution against the Parliament. The Archbishop of Canterbury refused, stating in a letter that ". . . the Christian religion is the one religion. I do not understand how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other intended members and the parity of their position and claims.” Several religious sects, most vociferous amongst them, American Christian fundamentalists, also refused to participate. Any 'mingling of waters' in a gathering of this type, where their own religion is put on stage as equal to another, was an overt challenge to their absolutist claims to truth and God. Just to appear on the same podium together with people who believed in a different God or savior, framed their own beliefs as only relative and not absolute. They did not think their buckets 'grated together in the same well' with other religions. They saw no common 'well' at all. They were loud in their denunciations and the local papers published their abuse of the Parliament as well as its' foreign, religious representatives. The contentious issue was considered by one of the speakers who called for a cessation of abuse. Vivekananda then stood and addressed what he thought was the cause:
"I will tell you a little story. You have heard the eloquent speaker who has just finished say, 'Let us cease from abusing each other,' and he was very sorry that there should be always so much variance.
"But I think I should tell you a story which would illustrate the cause of this variance. A frog lived in a well. It had lived there for a long time. It was born there and brought up there, and yet was a little, small frog. Of course the evolutionists were not there then to tell us whether the frog lost its eyes or not, but, for our story's sake, we must take it for granted that it had its eyes, and that it every day cleansed the water of all the worms and bacilli that lived in it with an energy that would do credit to our modern bacteriologists. In this way it went on and became a little sleek and fat. Well, one day another frog that lived in the sea came and fell into the well. 'Where are you from? 'I am from the sea.' 'The sea! How big is that? Is it as big as my well?' and he took a leap from one side of the well to the other. 'My friend,' said the frog of the sea, 'how do you compare the sea with your little well?' Then the frog took another leap and asked, 'Is your sea so big?' 'What nonsense you speak, to compare the sea with my well' 'Well, then,' said the frog of the well, ''nothing can be bigger than my well; there can be nothing bigger than this; this fellow is a liar, so turn him out. . .' That has been the difficulty all the while. I am a Hindu. I am sitting in my own little well and thinking that the whole world is my little well. The Christian sits in his little well and thinks the whole world is his well. The Mohammedan sits in his little well and thinks that is the whole world. I have to thank you of America for the great attempt you are making to break down the barriers of this little world of ours, and hope that, in future, the Lord will help you to accomplish your purpose."
Our story has gone from the waters of Walden Pond to a small well where two little frogs are talking. We have considered the eternal waters of the Sanatana Dharma and have passed from the global ice trade, to the World Parliament of Religions. We have seen the frozen ice of America shipped to India where it melted into the Ganges and Vedanta and the Bhagavad-Gita come to America with Swami Vivekananda. We heard the story of Eknath and how he gave his sacred Ganges water to save a dying donkey and learned of the Kashi Yatra and its cycling of waters.
In all of this, we have reflected and turned upon water. If we consider one thing deep enough, it seems we will find the pattern of all things. When Thoreau spoke of the mingling of Walden Pond and the Ganges, I envisioned a story whose beginning, middle and end was connected by water. As I began to tell the tale, following the template of water, I encountered changes in religion, culture and world-views. I followed the element of water and noted the meaningful events that flowed along with it.
Like the roots of a tree that are not seen and yet support the whole, this is also a story about hidden forces that reveal themselves in every aspect of our life. Some things are noticed only over a long period of time. When I look back at this story, it seems there is an intelligent principle at the heart of the water sweeping through ages of time. It is the same unseen principle that moves the heart of the world.
There is much more to this story, this is only a beginning.
“In the midst of the waters, the Lord is moving, seeing men’s truths and lies.
How sweet are these waters, crystal clear and cleansing.
Now may these great divine waters, enliven me”
- Rig Veda