Durham, North Carolina
Swamis who attracted me to Vedanta were Swami Vivekananda and Late Swami Ranganathananda. Swami Vivekananda (Swamiji) said: It is in love that religion exists and not in ceremony, in the pure and sincere love in the heart. … This is the gist of all worship – to be pure and to do good to others. He who sees Shiva in the poor, in the weak, and in the diseased, really worships Shiva; and if he sees Shiva only in the image, his worship is but preliminary. He who has served and helped one poor man seeing Shiva in him, without thinking of his caste, or creed, or race, or anything, with him Shiva is more pleased than with the man who sees Him only in temples.
Writing from America to Alsinga Perumal, one of Swamiji’s very beloved disciples from Chennai, on October 27, 1894, he said: ‘I do not believe in a God or religion which cannot wipe the widow’s tears or bring a piece of bread to the orphan’s mouth.’ (Complete Works, v. 5, 50) Again a few days later he wrote to Alsinga from Chicago, and said: Jealousy is the central vice of every enslaved race [like India at that time]. … Let each one of us pray day and night for the downtrodden millions who are held fast by poverty, priest-craft and tyranny – pray day and night for them. …’ (Ibid. 58.)
Then writing from Almora in July 1897 to Mary Hale in Chicago, addressing her as sister, he said: ‘… I have lost any wish for my salvation. I never wanted earthly enjoyments. …; And may I be born again and again, and suffer thousands of miseries so that I may worship the only God that exists, the only God I believe in, the sum total of all souls – and above all, my God the wicked, my God the miserable, my God the poor of all races, of all species, is the special object of my worship.’ (Ibid. 136 – 137.)
In a talk at the Thousand Island Park, New York, the Swami outlined the manner of serving the poor. ‘It is our privilege to be charitable. The poor man suffers so that we may be helped. Let the giver kneel down and give thanks; let the receiver stand up and permit. See the Lord back of every being and give to Him. Serving all these is the same as serving God Himself.’ Later on his return to India he founded the monastic Order of Ramakrishna with the twin objectives of liberation for oneself and service to God in man.
Like Swamiji, Swami Ranganathananda did not believe in a religion that was only confined to following meaningless rituals and dogmas. To him, ‘religion’, to use Swamiji’s words, ‘is realization.’ It is when a soul becomes one with one’s eternal Self; it is when one sees oneself in all, all in oneself. Commenting on the verse 2. 53 of the Bhagavad-Gita Swami Ranganathananda said: “In ordinary ritualism that concept of spiritual growth is never emphasized. We pay some five rupees to a priest, he does some ritual, and we are satisfied, but we remain the same. … But, in the science of spirituality, which is the Gita, there is this stress on spiritual growth. Are you growing spiritually? … Are you more peaceful? Are you more compassionate? Is the infinite Atman working in your life and work? That is spiritual growth. Without spiritual growth, religion becomes a mere static piety. … That is the story of most of the religions of the world. (BG: v.1, 211) He went on to reinforce his point by quoting from one of Swamiji’s letters (Complete Works, v.7, 501): ‘Religions of the world have become lifeless mockeries. What we want is character.’
Even before we (my wife Usha and I) became the disciples of Late Swami Bhasyananda Ji (Swami in-charge of Vedanta Society of Chicago) we had learned how much we should be detached about money in order to realize God. Being a professor of Economics, and a member of International Studies Committee at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., I was asked in 1974 to invite someone to speak on Hinduism. Since I used to read about Late Swami Ranganathananda in Indian papers here in America, on the advice of Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C., I called the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago about him.
So, when I called the number I was given by the Indian Embassy, Swami Bhashyananda Ji answered the phone. When I mentioned about Swami Ranganathananda, Swami Bhashyananda Ji said that he had already left for India. So we invited Swami Bhashyananda Ji instead. However, when I asked him how much he would charge. To that he responded: anything; money does not matter. After all I was a professor of Economics; I knew, was taught, and I myself taught that in this world, money alone matters! How could I know then that it was not true for the devotees of Sri Ramakrishna? Anyway, when the Swami arrived at the Greenville airport, I picked him up and left him at the Holiday Inn where I had reserved a room for him. I told him that I would pick him up the next morning, and bring him to our house for breakfast.
Next morning I received a call from a person who happened to be his devotee (!) in Chicago that Swami Bhashyananda has to pay the hotel bill before he could leave. So, I told that person to pay his bill and I would reimburse him. Then I went to the hotel and brought both of them to our house for breakfast.
After the breakfast, we all went to my University, and at an appointed hour, the Swami gave a talk to a group of students and professors in the auditorium. The whole audience was particularly pleased to hear the Swami talk about Swami Vivekananda and his most memorable speeches at the World Parliament of Religions that was held in Chicago from September 11 to September 27, 1893. The Swami asserted that no one religion held the monopoly of having the key to heaven, and pleaded for the harmony of religions based on the declaration of Rig Veda: Truth is One, sages call It by various names. Needless to say, both the students and professors greatly applauded him, and his speech was well reported in the local newspaper the next day. Some professors praised me, too, for inviting such a great speaker.
Later after the program, the Swami told the university administrator the money his people in Chicago had spent on the round-trip airplane ticket from Chicago to Greenville. According to rules, the university made separate checks for Swami Bhashyananda’s travel expenses and the honorarium; the Swami put both the checks in his pocket without even seeing the amounts of the checks! I gave the university the hotel checkout receipt, and, it reimbursed me for the hotel expenses.
When I was driving the Swami in the evening to the airport I asked him about not carrying money on his travels. He told me that it was not his practice to carry any money. Then I asked him if the university paid him the right amount for the honorarium. He said that he didn’t know the right amount and he didn’t see the amount on the check. (What a detachment about money!) On my request to see the check, the Swami handed over the envelope over to me. When I opened the envelope and saw the honorarium amount of $50 on the check, I was shocked. For, at the international committee’s meeting a month before the event, we had decided to pay $100 to the speakers. ($100 in 1974 was considered quite reasonable.) I asked the Swami to leave the check with me and I would send him the amended check in a few days. I talked with the committee’s chair the next day, and got the check corrected, and immediately sent the corrected check back to Chicago.