The Mission in America
By Anna Hourihan
When Swami Vivekananda was in America, he wrote to his brother monks in India that “wherever the seeds (of the Master’s teachings) will fall there it will fructify be it today or in a hundred years.” It has now been 125 years since the founding of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission and it continues to grow and prosper in India and in the West. Vivekananda’s prophetic words have been verified yet again.
As a devotee of the Holy Trio for 40 years, I have benefited, along with thousands of other Westerners, from the presence of the Ramakrishna monks and the Vedanta centers that they manage here in North America.
And so, I am grateful for this opportunity to join in celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Ramakrishna Mission and to express my heartfelt gratitude for the spiritual teachings, presence and support that the Mission has made possible for us in the West.
Swami Vivekananda was the founder of a number of key centers here in America, but it’s interesting to note that this was not his initial purpose for coming to the United States. His true mission was subsequently revealed to him about a year after his arrival, when he stated: “I have a message for the West as Buddha had a message for the East.”[i].
Why Swami Vivekananda Came to the West
What brought Swamiji to America in the first place? According to Louise M. Burke (Sister Gargi), in her biography Swami Vivekananda in America, New Discoveries, the reasons were mainly twofold:
1) to raise funds for the development of his work in India, and incidentally to provide for his self-support during his stay in this country, and 2) to give the American people correct ideas of Hinduism, to combat the current misconceptions regarding India, and to inculcate the spirit of tolerance.[ii]
When Swami Vivekananda made his first debut at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, the standing ovation he received should have given him some hint of a greater purpose and destiny. The unexpected response indicated a genuine need, hunger, and readiness for spirituality that was awaiting him in the West.
However, it wasn’t until the end of 1894 that he had a clear understanding of his mission and realized that the original intent for coming to America was not the main one, but was a means to get him to America.
Swamiji felt encouraged by the reception he received by earnest seekers and he desired to teach American disciples: “Here is a grand field … where on earth is there a better field than here for propagating all high ideals?”[iii] He traveled widely in the United States giving lectures in many of the major cities especially in the Midwest, East Coast, West Coast, and as far south as Memphis, Tennessee. The major cities he visited were: New York City, New York; Boston and Cambridge in Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; Madison, Wisconsin; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Des Moines, Iowa; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Memphis, Tennessee; San Francisco, Oakland, Hollywood, Los Angeles and Pasadena in California. He stated “My intention is to do something permanent here.”[iv]
According to Sister Gargi, Swami Vivekananda “planted the seeds of spirituality deep in the hearts of innumerable human beings, changing the course of their lives forever”[v] and “his deeper purpose was to fulfill the divine function of a prophet among the people of the Western world, mingling with as many as possible and blessing all.”[vi]
Swamiji himself said that he did not “lecture” he “gave.” In his inimitable way, he expressed his desire to effectively convey the ideas of Vedanta to Westerners in a letter to Mr. Sturdy: “I want to give them dry, hard reason, softened in the sweetest syrup of love and made spicy with intense work, and cooked in the kitchen of Yoga, so that even a baby can easily digest it.”[vii]
The establishment of Vedanta centers headed by Ramakrishna monks was the way to continue what he himself had started. For this to happen an organization was needed to train monks for this purpose and to serve the needs of India. With this realization of the requirement for an organization, Swamiji founded the Ramakrishna Math and Mission in 1898. The motto of the organization represented the goal: For one’s own liberation and for the welfare of the world.
Although I have never been to India, I have benefited from the presence of Ramakrishna monks who have continued the work of Swami Vivekananda in the various centers that he established. The very first time I heard the principles of Vedanta from my teacher, who was the student of a beloved Ramakrishna monk, they struck a deep chord within. It was this connection that signaled the beginning of my spiritual life. An vital requirement for spiritual life is holy company. There is no substitute for it, and the Ramakrishna Mission has been successful all these years in providing it.
A review of the early beginnings of the Ramakrishna movement in America will be helpful in understanding its foundations here.
Vedanta Centers in America
As noted, Swami Vivekananda travelled all over the country and either started centers or planted the seeds for Vedanta centers in many major cities of America where he lectured.
With Swamiji’s realization of his mission for the West, he requested his brother disciples to join and assist him. Among the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna who came to America were Swamis Saradananda, Abhedananda, Turiyananda and Trigunatitananda.
Swami Saradananda, on the request of Swamiji, joined him in London in 1896 and then a few months later went on to New York. For the next two years he gave lectures in New York, Maine, and in Massachusetts including Boston and Cambridge. He returned to India in 1898 when Swamiji called him back to be the first General Secretary of the Ramakrishna Order where his exceptional administrative skills were put to use.
In 1896, Swamiji also brought Swami Abhedananda to London for the work there. The following year Abhedananda went to New York City to take charge of the Vedanta Society, which had just been started. He attracted many due to his great scholarship, keen intellect and gift as an orator. He was also a writer. Like Swami Saradananda before him, he lectured in the various cities in Massachusetts and also Maine. After his success in America, he returned to India in 1923 where he established a Ramakrishna Vedanta organization.
On his return to America in 1899, Swami Vivekananda was accompanied by another brother disciple, Swami Turiyananda, who he had persuaded, with great effort, to help him with the Vedanta work in America. Turiyananda originally went to assist at the New York Vedanta Society. Since he was of a deeply meditative type and had the bearing of a true yogi, he was not as suited to lecturing as the monks who came before him. On acknowledging this, Swamiji asked Turiyananda just to be himself—he inspired by his mere presence.
In February 1900, Swami Vivekananda arrived in San Francisco. That same year he founded The Vedanta Society of Northern California. He stayed in the Bay area and attracted thousands to some of his lectures. In a letter to Swami Abhedananda he said, “I am trying my best to get one of you for a flying visit to this coast; it is a great country for Vedanta.” He decided Swami Turiyananda would be his successor, saying of him, “I will send you another, greater than I, one who lives what I talk about.”
There was a desire among the members for a secluded place away from the city to practice spiritual disciplines. Property in northern California was offered to Swamiji by a member of the New York Vedanta Society for this purpose. Swami Turiyananda named the property Shanti Ashrama and soon after his arrival went there with about ten Vedanta students to establish a retreat. Turiyananda was there for most of his two-year stay in California. He left in June 1902 due to health issues, and an overwhelming desire to see Swamiji who had little time left on this plain. To his great distress, Turiyananda had arrived too late to see his beloved brother monk. Swamiji, before his passing, had already arranged for Swami Trigunatitananda to take over for Turiyananda. Swami Turiyananda never returned to the West.
After Swami Trigunatitananda arrived in California in 1903, he moved the main center to the city of San Francisco. Within a few years he started collecting funds for the building of a temple. The temple, in its architecture, was to symbolize the idea of the harmony of all religions. It became the first Hindu temple built in America, and survived the 1906 earthquake that devastated three quarters of the city. It has recently been totally renovated.
Trigunatitananda’s accomplishments were many:
“The swami worked incessantly to establish the Society on a firm foundation. He held annual month-long retreats in Shanti Ashrama, gave innumerable classes and lectures, performed elaborate special worships, published a magazine, Voice of Freedom, founded a monastery and a convent, established a spiritual retreat, and, most importantly, built up the spiritual lives of those in his care.”[viii]
He also started a Vedanta Society in the Los Angeles area. His work ended with his death in 1915.
These five direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna spent years in America and left their mark as not only great expounders, but also exemplars of the Vedanta teachings. They thereby created a solid foundation for Vedantic principles and the continuation of the work that Swamiji envisioned.
As Swamiji felt called to leave his beloved India and travel to the West, so have many other swamis of the Ramakrishna Mission followed in his footsteps. These monks were willing to leave all that was familiar and sacred for a foreign land with a totally different social and materialistic culture. The sacrifices, including the isolation, especially for the early swamis to this country, no doubt have been justified by the growth of the Vedanta movement here.
Synthesis of East and West
Another of Swami Vivekananda discoveries was that the West also had something other than monetary assistance to offer the East. He envisioned the ideal of a synthesis of East and Wes: “I am to create a new order of humanity here.” His words speak for themselves:
I believe that the Hindoo faith has developed the spiritual in its devotees at the expense of the material, and I think that in the Western world the contrary is true. By uniting the materialism of the West with the spiritualism of the East I believe much can be accomplished.[ix]
By combining some of the active and heroic elements of the West with the calm virtues of the Hindus, there will come a type of men far superior than any that have ever been in the world.[x]
Swami Vivekananda planted the seeds for a great spiritual flowering in this country, which continues to spread the liberating teachings of Vedanta to those of us in the West. With the Indian diaspora, he has provided Indians who have emigrated here an opportunity to maintain or in some cases to discover their spiritual roots.
The number of Vedanta centers run by Ramakrishna monastics in America has grown to 21 with two retreat centers. There are two centers with monastics—both monks and nuns. We are grateful to have seen this in our lifetime and to know that the liberating ideas of Vedanta are evident more and more in our modern thinking and no doubt will continue to be so.
[ii]Burke, Marie Louise, Swami Vivekananda in America, New Discoveries, (Mayavati: Advaita Ashrama, 1958), 333
[v]Burke, Marie Louise, Swami Vivekananda in America, New Discoveries, (Mayavati: Advaita Ashrama, 1958), 337