By Bill Davis
My family is Jewish but my parents were atheists. Not crusading atheists, but people who had no religion in the household. Nothing having to do with God was ever mentioned. With the exception of my father’s mother (who kept a kosher home and would go to shul), my grandparents were also atheists. Even two great-grandparents were atheists—actually anarchists, my mother’s mother’s parents.
What Vedanta Means to Me
One of the models for American Vedantist is Vedanta and the West (VW), published from 1938 to 1970 under the guidance of Swami Prabhavananda at the Vedanta Society of Southern California. For several years VW ran a regular feature called “What Vedanta Means to Me.”
AV is reviving that column; readers answer the question, “What Vedanta Mean to Me,” or as in the article by Bill Davis that follows, “How I Came to Vedanta.”
My maternal grandfather told me the story that when he was about 11 (still in Belo Russ region of Russia) he noticed his father, who was very pious – in fact the cantor of his synagogue, making a very poor living by, among other things, walking on flax, a very dusty low-paying job. He thought, “There can’t be a God. How could God reward him with this poor livelihood after all his prayers and piety?”
The winds of Communism were blowing. “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” He remained an atheist until his dying days when he actually unconsciously reverted to his childhood faith. As he lay sick in bed he would speak of going to heaven. My father had a bar mitzvah, but afterwards, when his father noticed him laying tvillin1, he sarcastically remarked, “You’re actually taking this seriously?” That was the end of religion for my father.
When I first thought about it, a deterministic explanation for the universe seemed obvious.
When I first thought about it at age 14, a deterministic explanation for the universe seemed obvious. God was unnecessary. Just a superstition. Only matter existed. A couple of years earlier we were living in an all-gentile community. I wanted to meet other Jews, so I asked to be sent to synagogue. My parents looked for the most reformed temple they could find. United Hebrew Temple was almost next door to the St. Louis Vedanta Society. When I walked by, it sort of scared me. It had a name that had no meaning in English. In synagogue I learned about the prophets. I thought, “If God exists, just as God spoke to them, He could also speak to me. There is no difference between then and now.” When I learned the Shemah which says, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all they soul and with all thy might,” I wondered how can one be commanded to love. Love arises spontaneously within; it is not an act of will. Little did I know that later I would be placed on the path of bhakti yoga.
I saw a TV show about a misfit obsessed by the question, “What is the meaning of life?”
One day around this time I saw a TV program about a misfit who seemed obsessed by the question, “What is the meaning of life?” I thought to myself, “Yes, what is the meaning of life?” and this question stayed with me from then on. However, it seemed that my tentative answer to this question lay in the pursuit of girls and sports.
I somehow heard about yoga and took a book out from the public library on yoga. It discussed how one could project one’s astral body. This didn’t interest me and thus ended my reading about yoga for the time being.
Once Huston Smith was invited to speak on the religions of the world for a school-wide assembly at my high school in Clayton, Missouri. He showed such respect for every religion. Who knew that he was president of the St. Louis Vedanta Society? I had the thought, “Either they are all true or they’re all false.” I tended to think they were all false.
In college I became a philosophy major to try to answer my question about the meaning of life. I liked Kant who demonstrated that a flaw can be found in all logical proofs of God’s existence. This bolstered my atheism, but not completely, since Kant himself was pious and felt he had cleared the ground for faith in God.
In studying philosophy, I was struck by the mind-body problem. If there is only matter, then how can we explain subjective experience? Light, reflecting off a red object, strikes my retina and certain nerves, connecting the eye to the brain, fire. I wondered, “When does it go beyond nerves firing, a physical process, and become experience?”
Answers given by philosophers seemed like gobbledygook.
The answers offered by philosophers just seemed to me like gobbledygook. This problem put a dent in my philosophical materialism. The philosophical materialists had to have faith that somehow this problem could be solved. So one needed faith. If one had to have faith in any case, why not have faith in God? But I was not yet ready for this step.
In the Antioch College library I came across a book called Cosmic Consciousness. It gave first-hand accounts by people who experienced this state. I immediately began to develop a hunger to also experience this. This state exists. Why shouldn’t I also experience it? But how to do so? Most of these experiences just seemed to happen out of the blue.
A pious Catholic friend tried to get me to believe & prayed for me without immediate result.
A pious Catholic friend in college, Jackie DiSalvo, tried to get me to believe. She prayed for me without immediate result. In the long run I did come to believe but she lost her faith and became a Communist. It’s as if she had enough faith for only one person and it went to me. Hopefully she has regained her faith.
I married right after college, but soon felt marriage did not provide the solution to the quest for meaning in life. Also, graduate school was not particularly to my liking, but I was trapped there by the Vietnam War. Life seemed to be one disappointment after another.
In my second year of graduate school (NYU – social psychology) I shared an office with Bill Sherrer — a devotee of Meher Baba. I knew nothing about eastern mysticism and so was curious. Although Maher Baba maintained silence, he was a prolific writer and I began to read his works. The first was The Everything and The Nothing which was my first encounter with Advaita Vedanta. It made perfect sense to me. I also read his Discourses in three volumes and was impressed when he said, “We don’t see the stars during the day. Does that mean there are no stars above during the daytime? Likewise, just because we don’t see God, does it mean He doesn’t exist [approximate quote]?” (Later I read the same thing in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.)
This was a fatal blow to my atheism and I began to consider myself an agnostic. I read his books over a long period, and he said another thing which impressed me: “The only way you can resolve your doubts about the existence of God is to meet a holy person [approximate quote].” But how can one obtain such a meeting? Another thing Meher Baba said is, “When the time is ripe, the meeting will take place [approximate quote].” This gave me hope. I began to keep alert for an encounter with a holy person.
I began attending the Integral Yoga institute in Manhattan and doing yoga asanas.
This encounter was a long time coming. I began attending the Integral Yoga institute which was just a block away on 13th St. in Manhattan and doing yoga asanas in group classes. Everyone was very fashionably dressed and very cool. It seemed people were more intent on meeting members of the opposite sex than on spiritual growth. There were shelves with spiritual books for sale and I saw a slender book which had a title I liked: Common Sense about Yoga. I bought the book and read the preface. The author lived in the Himalayas. His name was Swami Pavitrananda. I thought, “Well, I’ll never meet him.”
I was reading about peoples’ encounters with LSD. It was said that LSD could lead to the experience of the white light, supposedly a high spiritual experience. I was interested but also afraid, having read that many people cracked up on LSD. Dr. Richard Alpert (later Baba Ram Das) came to NYU and spoke about his experiences with LSD. He made an interest in LSD seem respectable.
A holy man gobbled down tablets of LSD but had no change in his consciousness.
Then sometime later he traveled to India and spoke on WBAI, the radical NYC radio station, about his experiences there. He had met a holy man who gobbled down tablets of LSD but had absolutely no change in his consciousness. He was apparently already established on the plane to which LSD could briefly elevate you. After hearing this, I definitively put aside any thought of trying LSD. I would try to attain that state by spiritual means. I recently learned from Pr. Gitaprana, here at Ridgely, that the name of the holy man was Neem Karoli Baba.
I heard about the 14 year old “perfect Master,” Guru Maharaj ji. I think I remember seeing posters on street lamps advertising a rally in his honor at the Shea tennis stadium in Queens. Why I felt a need to check him out I can’t imagine. I think I had already heard about him that he was selling the privilege of initiation for $1,000 (this is 1971) and being driven around in a Rolls Royce. At the rally, adoring disciples were shouting, “Jai guru maharaj ji ki jai” over and over again. He seemed to me more like a perfect con man than a perfect master. The whole event made me feel nauseous. For a long time these words, often uttered at pujas in the Ramakrishna order, would bring back the nausea.
I had begun to read Meher Baba in the fall of 1965. In the late winter or early spring of 1972 I was trying to finish my doctoral dissertation and was working late in an office at Millhauser Labs in the NYU Medical Center. At that time I was working at Bellevue Hospital. The psychology department head, Dr. Murray Alpert (no relation to Richard), was kindly doing what he could to help me finish. He let me use an office with a wonderful view of the East River.
In those days there were no PCs and scientists would hire typists to prepare manuscripts for publication. A fellow by the name of Ted Kopf (pronounced cough) had begun working there as a temp, typing papers. He was also working late. He looked a little like a gnome, but a friendly gnome. I invited him to join me for supper in the hospital cafeteria and he agreed.
As soon as we sat down he declared that he was a metaphysician and he belonged to a group called Agni Yoga. His guru, who led the group, was an American by the name of Ralph Houston. Mr. Kopf told me many things about his guru’s ideas. Their goal was God-realization.
An occult idea: Hitler is being reborn millions of times as a lab rat to reap his Karma.
An occult idea that stands out is that Hitler is being reborn millions of times as a laboratory rat to reap his Karma, for me a satisfying idea. In order to prepare me to meet his guru, he recommended that I read The Razor’s Edge and Lost Horizon. I thought to myself, “Perhaps this is my opportunity. Ralph Houston may be the soul I am searching for.”
I did read these books and I asked him if I could meet his guru. He answered that he would have to speak to him about it. He came back and said his guru would first like to know my birthday, birth-time, and birthplace plus he would like to see my signature. I provided these and waited on tenterhooks for Mr Kopf to come back with the verdict. I even prayed to Ralph Houston for help. Clearly astrology was being consulted, something I had absolutely no faith in, but who knows?
The answer was, “I should go to the Vedanta Society and meet Swami Pavitrananda.”The answer was, “No, I could not meet with his guru but if I was interested in pursuing spiritual life I should go to the Vedanta Society at 34 W 71st St. in Manhattan and meet Swami Pavitrananda.” I immediately remembered my prediction that I would never meet him. I am often making predictions where exactly the opposite happens. Here seemed to be another instance. Mr. Kopf knew the schedule there and said there were classes on Tuesday evenings at 8 when the Bhagavad Gita was discussed after a meditation and a general talk on Sundays at 11. He also told me about the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center but made it clear that his guru was recommending the Vedanta Society more highly.
This must have been on a Monday. The very next day, perhaps it was late February or early March, I attended the Bhagavad Gita class. I since came to know that this was about the time of the centennial of Holy Mother coming to Dakshineswar.
When I saw the chapel I was immediately pleased. These were not hucksters.
When I came through the door a small elderly lady with a slight French accent greeted me as if I were a visiting dignitary. She was Jeanne Genet. When I saw the chapel I was immediately pleased. These were not hucksters. The chapel was very plain. There was a simple altar with a picture of the head of a man who seemed to radiate love. There were tastefully arranged flowers on the altar and candles burning. On the right wall were symbols of different religions and the motto: “Truth is one. Sages call it variously.”
Also, the people in attendance were not cool or fashionably dressed. They looked both plain and earnest. There may have been one or two Indians in the whole group. This wasn’t the hip place to be, but it boded well to be a genuine place. Swami Pavitrananda, a tall but slender, elderly, Indian man, sat in the back and after 15 minutes of meditation with the lights dimmed, a tape was played of a Bhagavad Gita discourse he had given some years previously. He had a slight stammer and an Indian accent so I had a hard time catching everything he said. However, my heart told me that I had found the right place and the right person.
After the talk Swami Pavitrananda greeted people as they left the chapel. Most the people passed him with folded hands, and he exchanged a few words with each. When my turn came I asked if I could meet with him. He simply waved one of his hands. Courtenaye Olden, a long-time devotee who was standing close by, explained to me that his gesture meant that he wanted to first see if I was sincere – that I should attend for a while before he met with me. She explained that his health was not that good, that he couldn’t expend his limited energy on those who were not sincere.
I began attending twice a week and waited six months before our first meeting.
I began attending twice a week and had to wait six months before our first meeting, but then things began to move quickly. Among other books, Swami Pavitrananda recommended that I read the Life of Sri Ramakrishna published by the Advaita Ashrama. As a result of reading this, my doubts about the existence of God were put to rest. Either God existed or the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna were liars. But how could a man whose first teaching was truthfulness have disciples who were liars? Thus I came to Vedanta.
What led me to remain? In reading a small version of the Gospel of Ramakrishna published by the Vedanta Society of N. Y. edited by Swami Abhedananda, over and over again I came across Ramakrishna urging M. and others to repeat the name of God.
At our next meeting I asked Swami Pavitrananda, “What is the name of God?”
At our next meeting I asked Swami Pavitrananda, “What is the name of God?” He in return asked me what I thought of Sri Ramakrishna. I blurted out that I thought he was God in human form. I didn’t know I even believed this but it came out of my mouth. He shut his eyes, becoming more erect and was silent for a while. Was he communing with God? Then he gave me a name of God to repeat. I received this as a valuable treasure and this gift of the name seems to have locked me to him and Vedanta. Sri Ramakrishna said that the goal of life is to realize God. This became the goal of my life.
In retrospect I feel that Thakur was drawing me to him right from the start. It was he who inspired me to search for the meaning of life and to see that the joys of worldly life were just not sufficient. He guided my thought and led me to reject the atheistic position with which I started life. He inspired my search for an evolved soul. He arranged my encounter with Mr. Kopf and the result of my astrological chart.
As a child I would have such great expectations for joy but met with repeated disappointments, learning to curb my expectations to a realistic level. But coming to know that infinite bliss is our birthright after all, I feel now that my expectations were always wholly legitimate but can only be satisfied with nothing less than God realization.
1 Tvillin: Either of two small, boxlike leather cases holding slips inscribed with certain Scriptural passages, fastened, using leather thongs, one to the forehead and the other to the arm, by Orthodox or Conservative Jewish men during weekday morning prayer: see Deut. 6:4-9: usually used in the plural, referring to the pair of cases containing the slips together with the straps.
BILL DAVIS, a disciple of Swami Pavitrananda, came to The Vedanta Society of NY in 1972. After a career as a psychologist, he retired in 2007. Bill now lives at Vivekananda Retreat, Ridgely and serves as a handyman; he also still helps out monthly at the Vedanta Society of NY.