AS you age contemplatively, some historic figures start looking smaller, and some bigger. These thoughts reverberated in my mind during the annual one-day retreat in the Shanti Ashram, 30 miles from Lawrence, California. The Ashram was established in 1900 i.e., 110 years ago during the second visit of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1903). It is 160 acres of picturesque highland, nestled amidst canyons, at 4,2000 elevation. A White American admirer of Swami Vivekananda donated it to one of the several Vedanta Societies established in the US.
Vivekananda was only 30 years old when he mesmerised the American intellectuals with his oratory, scholarship of Hindu philosophy and magnetic personality. In today’s fashion world, he could be the Number 1 male model. The toastmasters would rank him Number 1 in the world, as a motivational speaker.
Vivekananda came from the part of India where the Hindus had stopped hoping for political freedom after succession of foreign rulers for centuries. They were totally emaciated physically and mentally. According to the British Gazetteer, during 1891-1900, 19 million Indians died due to famines and 15 million due to associated diseases of malaria and plague.
I can’t help looking at my life of 70+ years including 40+ in the US. It is easy to form organisations, but challenging to inspire people into action. At the retreat, all the monks were White Americans. It must be added that Ramakrishna Mission, started by Vivekananda, in India, has been flourishing for a century. Incidentally, Mahendranath Gupta (1854-1932), another disciple of Ramakrishna Paramhans (real name, Gadadhar Chattopadhyay; 1836-1886) spread his gospel on a parallel track drawing family persons in its order.
The retreat attracted about 100 people including children. Nearly 80 per cent of the participants were Hindus. The Ashram has only a couple of small wooden structures. Twice, the wild forest fires have burnt away its historic structures. A small picture exhibition was very informative – showing how some pioneer devotees settled there during times of horse-drawn carriages. We took 60 minutes to cover 30 miles of mountainous road.
The Ashram, in the valley, presented a riot of colors, as the spring flowers were raging all over. The morning session played out devotional songs and music. People with kids, having lunches under the trees, turned it into a spiritual picnic. The society provided snacks, and drinks. There is no storage facility, utility lines, or public transpiration.
I sat in the programme to soak ‘spiritual vibrations’. The afternoon session had four monks speaking on Concentration and Detachment. My mind ‘refused’ to focus on it. All the time, it would question it in the context of post 9/11 world. The metaphors, similes and examples must have relevance to the present. The irony of the present time, in the free world, is that people are living in sound and video bites and tweets. The technology is becoming a bane for concentration for commoners. The mind functions as a yo-yo, by external stimuli beating it in every waking minute. After a few decades, either deep thinking will be exclusively in the hands of a few, or approach to zero in limit while dooming the society, at large.
Eventually, I got up and left the tent hall before the programme was over. I enjoyed the aroma of spirituality in the air. After all, if there are carbon prints of any object, then there ought to be ‘spiritual foot prints’, of the enlightened ones who lived in the Ashram. Of course, this is subject to one’s mental receivers whether they are fine-tuned.
With these thoughts, we drove back home. The forest oak trees, defying any pruning of its branches forming amasing contours and twists, soared my spirits. They truly capture the persona of Vivekananda in his extensive travels in the US at a time of no automobiles! Despite such harsh conditions, the sprouts of Hinduism have been flourishing here for over 100 years. Here is my bouquet of salutations to Swami Vivekananda!