What can Christians learn from other religions?

The wisdom and tradition of other religions help expand the arena in which God lives and moves and has being.

Swami Adiswarananda

explains the basic teachings of Vedanta

Written by Jon M. Sweeney

Swami Adiswarananda died in late October, 2007 at the age of 82. We are especially thankful that we were able to capture some of his thoughts and insights in this interview.

Swami AdiswaranandaExplorefaith sat down recently with Swami Adiswarananda, the spiritual leader of the historic Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York City. We wanted to learn more about the teachings of Vedanta, and we wanted to discover what people do at a Vedanta center.

The Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York is a place for spiritual seekers of all faiths. One of the approximately 150 branches of the Ramakrishna Order of India and abroad, the Center bases its teachings on the system of Vedanta, especially as it is explained by Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886), his wife and spiritual companion Sri Sarada Devi, the Holy Mother (1853-1920), and his disciple Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902).

Swami Adiswarananda was born in India and educated as a monk in the Ramakrishna Order. The Ramakrishna Order is often referred to as “the Jesuits of the East,” because of the comparable rigor of training which they undergo, and the high expectations that accompany becoming a Ramakrishna swami. He came to the United States nearly four decades ago, and is a popular spiritual teacher on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and beyond.

Swami Adiswarananda has also recently published several books with SkyLight Paths Publishing in Vermont, including Meditation and Its Practices and The Four Yogas.

EXPLOREFAITH: Since many in the explorefaith community may be unfamiliar with your beliefs, why don't we take a few minutes to tell people what a Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center is. What religious tradition or traditions are you a part of?

SWAMI ADISWARANANDA: We are students of Vedanta, a philosophy that has evolved from the teachings of the Vedas, the world’s oldest religious writings. According to the Vedas, ultimate reality is all-pervading, uncreated, self-luminous, eternal spirit, the final cause of the universe, the power behind all tangible forces, the consciousness which animates all conscious beings. This is the central philosophy of Vedanta.

From the philosophical standpoint, Vedanta is non-dualistic, and from the religious standpoint, monotheistic. Vedanta philosophy asserts the essential non-duality of God, soul, and universe, the apparent distinctions being created by names and forms which, from the standpoint of ultimate reality, do not exist.

Vedanta accepts all religions as true and regards the various Godheads of different faiths as diverse manifestations of the one Absolute.Vedanta asserts that Truth is universal and that humankind and all of existence are one. It teaches the unity of the Godhead, or ultimate Reality, and accepts every faith as a valid means for its own followers to realize the Truth.

EXPLOREFAITH: And so, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda must be two of the supreme teachers of Vedanta?

SWAMI ADISWARANANDA: Yes, that’s right, along with Sri Sarada Devi, the wife of Ramakrishna, whom we refer to as the Holy Mother.

The four cardinal principles of Vedanta may be summed up as: the non-duality of the Godhead, the divinity of the soul, the unity of existence, and the harmony of religions. The essential teaching of Vedanta, as stated by Swami Vivekananda, is: “Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature: external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy—by one or more or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”

EXPLOREFAITH: Where does Hinduism fit into all of this? Are you Hindu, as well?

SWAMI ADISWARANANDA: Vedanta is the final teaching of the Vedas, and the Vedas are rooted in Hinduism. The original name of Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma or Eternal Religion. The teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda and Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi reflect not only the original teachings of the Vedas and Vedanta, but also go beyond popular Hindu thoughts and traditions. This is because Sri Ramakrishna practiced various religions, eventually coming to the ultimate realization, declaring, “As many faiths, so many paths.” It is for this reason that the Ramakrishna Order adores and reveres the prophets, saints and scriptures of all religions.

EXPLOREFAITH: What sort of spiritual practices do you do at the Center?

SWAMI ADISWARANANDA: The follower of Vedanta practices prayer, meditation, self-analysis, selfless activity and service of God in all beings. According to Vedanta, to know God is to become like God. We may quote scriptures, engage in rituals, perform social service, or pray with regularity, but unless we directly experience the divine spirit in our hearts, we are still phenomenal beings—victims of a separative existence. Direct experience is more than blind belief, intellectual understanding, or temporary emotional exaltation.

One can experience God as tangibly as “a fruit lying on the palm of one’s hand,” which means that in this very life we can overcome our lower nature, manifest our higher nature, and become perfect. Through direct experience of God, one’s doubts disappear and the “knots of the heart are cut asunder.” Only such direct experience can confer immortality. Immortality is never physical, but spiritual, and it is to be attained in this very life. The attainment of immortality is not the prerogative of a chosen few, but the birthright of all.

EXPLOREFAITH: How can a person know if he or she has attained this sort of perfection? Does someone always know clearly when they have had the experience of unity with the Divine that you describe?

SWAMI ADISWARANANDA: Permanent transformation of the character of a person is the most vital test of the attainment of perfection. Such transformation (a) silences all doubts, (b) is never superseded by any subsequent experience, (c) is never contradictory to reason and common sense, and (d) is always conducive to the welfare of all beings. A seeker who has attained perfection not only communes with God inside his or her heart, but also sees all beings as transfigurations of that same God. The heart of such a person overflows with compassion for all human beings regardless of culture, tradition and religious affiliation. Such a person dedicates his or her life for the welfare of all.

EXPLOREFAITH: Do you celebrate or commemorate any religious holidays?

SWAMI ADISWARANANDA: As a temple of universal worship, the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York honors and reveres the saints, sages and prophets of all religions. We observe special services annually to commemorate Sri Ramakrishna’s Birthday, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi’s Birthday, Swami Vivekananda’s Birthday, Buddha’s Birthday, Sri Durga Puja (the worship of God as Mother), Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter.

EXPLOREFAITH: Do you ever encounter people of other religious traditions wanting to convert you to their faith? How do you respond to them

SWAMI ADISWARANANDA: The spiritual unity of humankind and the harmony of religions are our central teachings, and at our Center followers of all religious traditions are welcome. We do not believe in conversion or proselytizing, and we do not ask those who come about their religious background. In the interfaith spirit, religious leaders of all faiths are invited to speak at our Center. At our Center we believe in the essential truth of all faiths and accept all religions as basically true. Diversity is the plan of the universe, and so representations of God and religion must also be diverse to suit the needs and temperaments of people of all times, countries and backgrounds.

EXPLOREFAITH: I know that you, Swami, were born and educated in India. Are there swamis leading centers like yours elsewhere in North America that were born and trained, here?

SWAMI ADISWARANANDA: At present there are more than twelve hundred monks (swamis) in the Ramakrishna Order. While most of them are from different parts of India, there are also many individuals from various other countries who have taken up the monastic life, joined the Order, and become ordained as swamis. All swamis of the Ramakrishna Order, including those from abroad, are required to receive some of their training in India at the Order’s monastic training center at Belur Math, the headquarters of the Order. While the spiritual leaders of our Ramakrishna Order centers are generally senior swamis of Indian origin, there are many western-trained swamis who take up various religious duties, including speaking from the pulpit, ceremonial worship and other works of service.

EXPLOREFAITH: Would you leave us with a teaching from Sri Ramakrishna about spiritual practice? What would he have the beginner do?

SWAMI ADISWARANANDA: The central theme of Sri Ramakrishna's message is God-consciousness. God-consciousness is the essence of all teachings of all religions. It is the goal of all study of scriptures, philosophical speculation, prayer and contemplation, sacraments and rituals, charity and austerity, and pilgrimage to holy places. To Sri Ramakrishna, the message of all scriptures, of all religions, is that God alone is real and all else is illusory. One must grasp this message and then plunge into oneself for the realization of truth, through some form of prayer, meditation, self-control and other spiritual practices.

For Sri Ramakrishna, sincerity lies at the root of all spirituality. The purpose of all spiritual practices is to become sincere. It is, in his words, “to make our thought, word, and action the same.” While God-consciousness, the goal of religion, remains the same for all ages, denominations and paths vary, as they must, to suit the diverse tastes of different seekers.

Copyright ©2007 Jon Sweeney

The Four Yogas by Swami Adiswarananda
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