by Karl Whitmarsh
How our Vedanta Society came into being
In 1929, an elderly American woman, Carrie Wyckoff, offered a young Indian swami the use of her little home and property in Hollywood for the teaching and propagation of Vedanta philosophy and ideals. From those modest beginnings has grown what is now the largest Vedanta society in the Western world, the Vedanta Society of Southern California, or VSSC for short.
In 1934 the VSSC was formally incorporated as a California non-profit organization. Its Articles of Incorporation include the following explanations of why the VSSC was formed:
- To promote the study of the philosophy and religion of Vedanta as expounded by Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda and others belonging to the Order and School of the Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math, India, under the direct guidance of a Swami belonging to and deputed by the said Ramakrishna Mission.
- To promote harmony between Eastern and Western thought and recognition of the truth in all the great religions of the world.
- (added after 1934) To encourage men and women of the Western world to become monastics by establishing Monasteries and Convents wherein the aim shall be God-realization through the unfoldment of the inner life following a course of spiritual discipline, self-sacrifice and the performance of all duties in connection with the ashrama on the lines set forth in the Rules of the Belur Math framed by Swami Vivekananda.
These noble ideals, echoing the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna, have defined the direction and tone of the VSSC from its inception to the present day – and I am confident they will continue to do so into the distant future.
Still, in the almost ninety years since its founding, the Vedanta Society of Southern California has of necessity changed along with the rest of America, just as it will have to adapt to further change in order to flourish in future generations.
Our Vedanta Society, then and now
A visitor to the VSSC in 1970, the year of my first visit, would have noted the following:
- The Society was under the direction of its founder, Swami Prabhavananda, and his assistant, Swami Asaktananda. Another assistant, Swami Chetanananda, would arrive from India the following year.
- With the exception of occasional guest speakers, the Indian swamis delivered all the Sunday lectures and evening classes to the Vedanta congregations in Hollywood and Santa Barbara.
- In Orange County, there were seven or eight monks at the Trabuco monastery, whose isolation was broken now and then by male devotees on retreat. The monks gave individual tours to the occasional members of the public who came to visit.
- All in all, there were approximately forty Vedanta monks, nuns and novices spread among the monasteries and convents in Santa Barbara, Hollywood and Trabuco.
- Those seriously interested in the work of Vedanta were strongly encouraged to become members of the VSSC. Only VSSC members were supposed to attend evening classes, vigils and special worships (pujas).
Attendance at Vedanta lectures grew during the 1960s, as young people became increasingly curious about Eastern religions. Some of these joined the VSSC as monastics. Over time, many of these young people returned to secular life, but those who remained form the nucleus of today’s Vedanta monastic community in Southern California.
Swami Prabhavananda emphasized the path of devotion as the most practical way of realizing God. In that connection, he felt that popular and public expressions of worship such as pujas, Ram Nams and kirtans were valuable aids to spiritual growth. Such popular activities have no doubt accounted for much of the growth in VSSC membership over the years.
What has changed at the VSSC in the nearly fifty years since 1970?
- The VSSC has expanded to include a center in San Diego and a small retreat center in the Mojave Desert. Of all our centers, once remote Trabuco now boasts the largest congregation for Sunday spiritual talks.
- In addition to the Indian swamis, Western Vedanta monks and nuns now give spiritual talks.
- The head minister, Swami Sarvadevananda, serves as the spiritual leader for devotees in small and mid-size Vedanta centers in more than a score of American cities outside of California.
- Pujas and most other activities are open to the general public, not just to members.
- Some of the Western monks have spent several years at Belur Math, deepening their commitment to the Ramakrishna Order and forming valuable bonds with their Indian peers.
- The monastic community, still overwhelmingly made up of Westerners, has shrunk over time, with the average age of its members now well over sixty. Consequently, many duties formerly assumed by monastics are now performed by householder volunteers or, where necessary, by specialized paid workers.
- The culture of the VSSC has gradually shifted to reflect both the ongoing cultural evolution of the American public and demographic changes taking place in the United States overall.
Cultural Change at the VSSC
In 1951, in his introduction to Vedanta for Modern Man, Christopher Isherwood wrote:
In the West, the cult of Ramakrishna is still in its infancy and therefore still surrounded by the external symbols of Hindu religion. There will always be those who are temperamentally drawn to these externals, who prefer Sanskrit to English chants, who like to wear saris and perform pujas according to the ancient Indian rituals. Nor is there anything undesirable in this; the rituals of Hinduism are very beautiful and they help one to imagine Ramakrishna within his own cultural setting, to picture him amidst the actual circumstances of his life on earth. Nevertheless, such practices are not for everybody; and Ramakrishna certainly never intended that all his Western followers should be turned into synthetic Hindus. Just as Jesus, through the ages, has lost much of his specifically Jewish character, so the figure of Ramakrishna will gradually become less and less specifically Indian. It cannot and should not be otherwise.
This passage is likely to strike today’s Vedantist reader as quaint. Perceptive in its day, it reflects a Vedanta Society and an America that have long since vanished into history. In 1951, the American public was with few exceptions grossly ignorant of Indian culture and tradition. For this reason, Swami Prabhavananda and other swamis of his generation consciously shaped the message and external expressions of Vedanta to resonate most forcefully with the Westerners who had invited them to preach. And at the time, it was generally assumed that this Westernized Vedanta would be the sole and inevitable modality to convey the message of Ramakrishna in the West.
Swami Prabhavananda believed firmly that the ideas and philosophy of Vedanta mattered vastly more than the forms in which they were expressed. Consequently, for Americans to imitate Indians in dress, diet or custom was – in his opinion – a distraction from the teachings that he and other early-generation swamis sought to propagate in America. To him, you were no less a spiritual seeker if you ate meat or abstained from it; if you wore blue jeans instead of a dhoti; if you prayed or sang in English rather than Bengali or Sanskrit. The teachings of Vedanta could and should take root and flourish whether they were in Western or Indian forms.
To that end the swami encouraged western forms of expression of Vedanta in literature and the arts. Gerald Heard, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and other contributors to Vedanta and the West magazine wrote at length and in depth on Vedanta as understood through the Western mind. Swami Tadatmananda was encouraged to paint sacred subjects within the artistic traditions of the West. Many musicians, such as Pravrajika Baradaprana, Peter Schneidre (Hiranyagarbha) and Swami Atmavidyananda, have composed devotional songs in Western melodic and harmonic styles.
However, in 1951 virtually no one foresaw the impact that social change would have on the VSSC in the decades to come. Every year, beginning in the 1970s, thousands of Indian nationals migrated to the United States. Younger generations of Americans – especially in California – grew increasingly familiar with and accepting of Indian culture. Many Indians arriving in this country, especially Bengalis, were already familiar with Ramakrishna and Vivekananda and so were naturally drawn to the VSSC and other Vedanta societies
Nowadays, our congregations contain sizable numbers of Indians. Though mixing amicably with Western members, they nonetheless form a distinct group. And the Westerners in turn are a diverse lot, drawing from agnostic, Christian, Jewish and a multitude of ethnic backgrounds.
Yet we are united more than we are separated. Though we follow multiple spiritual paths we all know our goal is the same. In an era of growing divisiveness, we should take pride in that fact. What is the real message of Vedanta to the modern world? It is what we practice every day within our own congregations: respect and reverence for the divinity underlying all nations, creeds and races.
There is little question that Indian norms are displacing the Western-based culture of the VSSC. Some are resentful of that fact. But it’s more constructive to take the long view. Who can say for certain what the Vedanta Society of the future will look like? Perhaps in a hundred years Indian-American society will follow in the traces of Irish, Italian, and other earlier immigrant societies: holding on for the most part to food and religious tradition, but otherwise more or less blending into the American cultural melting pot. Moreover, Western-born swamis will eventually become spiritual heads of center and give initiation to devotees. These shifts may usher in the renaissance of uniquely Western forms of Vedanta.
Practical challenges for the Vedanta Societies in the U.S.
The organization of Vedanta societies in the U.S. and of the VSSC in particular
The Vedanta societies in the United States are legally independent religious organizations. Their common bond is that their spiritual leaders are appointed by the Ramakrishna Math and Mission in India.
The Vedanta societies are widely dispersed geographically, and headed by swamis who are authorized to give initiation. These two factors ensure that the Vedanta societies are likely to remain independent of each other for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, it is interesting to conjecture what the Vedanta movement would look like if all the Vedanta societies in the U.S. were contained within a single umbrella organization.
One advantage of such an arrangement would be to facilitate the rotation of monastics among Vedanta centers in the West, furnishing them with increased opportunities to deploy their talents – thereby increasing the appeal of a monastic vocation – and more readily satisfying the needs of each center for monastic leadership. In this way the structure of American Vedanta would more closely resemble that of mainline Christian denominations. But along with greater resources, such unity would likely bring about greater conformity and less opportunity for individual swamis to shape their centers according to local conditions and their own temperaments.
Similar principles come into play when considering whether a Vedanta organization may already be too big and should be split into smaller centers. Such a split did occur fifty years ago within the Vedanta Society of Northern California, apparently because no single swami wanted to lead the organization after the death of Swami Ashokananda.
In Southern California, the Vedanta Society has remained intact as a single organization despite occasional suggestions that it might be better split into four separate Vedanta centers: Hollywood, Trabuco, Santa Barbara and San Diego. Such a division (which is by no means imminent) would require suitable monastics to lead each center, at a time when India and the U.S. both face a monastic shortage. But I also believe that the current large organization provides several advantages over four separate small centers. It allows greater flexibility for the deployment of monastics to staff the centers. It provides more financial stability, and more ready access to expertise when needed, such as for technical skills or for major construction or improvements. Meanwhile, the leaders of each center retain autonomy over their own operations.
For many decades, the secular leadership of the VSSC has consisted of a board of trustees, of whom nine members are Western monastics and six are lay devotees. All serve without remuneration. The spiritual head of center – currently Swami Sarvadevananda – is not a formal member of the board, although he does attend and participate in all board meetings.
Swami Prabhavananda devised this balanced structure of governance, unique among Vedanta societies, as a means to ensure that American monastics retain firm control over the objectives and day-do-day operations of the Society. Thanks to this arrangement, the VSSC has escaped the difficulties befalling some Vedanta societies where power was held predominantly by one entity, be it the spiritual head or a wholly lay board of trustees. But above all, the stability and success of the VSSC has depended, and will always depend, on mutual respect between its spiritual head and its board members.
Making do with fewer monastics
The population of monks and nuns that form the dedicated core of our church is aging and shrinking. Rather than be discouraged, we should remember that interest in the monastic life, like all religious movements, has its ebb and flow. The late 1960s saw an upsurge in religious vocations; for all we know, the coming generation may see likewise. Meanwhile, we have to figure out how to make do with fewer monks and nuns.
Obstacles to joining the monastic community
It has always been a condition for entry into the VSSC monastic community that one should come in free of debt. For how could a monk or nun ever expect to pay off debt? Yet nowadays, many well-educated young people inspired by monastic ideals face a challenge virtually unheard of fifty years ago: they enter adult life carrying a sizeable amount of debt from student loans.
One solution to the monastic shortage is for the VSSC to help qualified candidates for monastic life retire their debt. But if we embrace this idea, we have to proceed carefully. We do not want to attract candidates who profess interest in the monastic life but who consciously or unconsciously are prepared to leave it once the debt has been paid off.
Transition of responsibilities from monastics to lay members
In order to maintain the activities that we have today into tomorrow, the VSSC increasingly engages lay devotees and – as necessary – paid employees or contractors to carry out activities previously performed by monastics. Among such activities are gardening, cooking, cleaning, maintenance, bookstore, office work and devotional activities. However, monastics still need to supervise all work to ensure that the needs and principles of the Society are respected. The monastic community also needs to develop plans of succession for when the day arrives that a monastic is no longer able to perform his or her duties.
Expansion into new activities
Should the VSSC expand its outreach in the form of social and educational services? For example, there would be many benefits to constructing a senior-living facility for our older members. Aside from the obvious benefits to our congregations, such a facility would provide attractive opportunities for service to monastics and lay members alike. Drawbacks would include the need to raise funds and attract qualified professionals to manage the facility. We also would be rowing against the current of economic and social changes of the past century, which have tended to favor for-profit facilities over those run by religious orders.
How should we present Vedanta to the West?
Vivekananda said (as paraphrased by Isherwood):
“If I had preached the personality of Ramakrishna, I might have converted half the world; but that kind of conversion is short-lived. So instead I preached Ramakrishna’s principles. If people accept the principles, they will eventually accept the personality.”
“The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor is a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth. If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world, it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity, and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character.
One of the VSSC’s founding principles is “To promote harmony between Eastern and Western thought and recognition of the truth in all the great religions of the world.” In other words, it is not enough for us to explain the principles of Vedanta philosophy and talk about the lives and teachings of its great avatars and teachers. If we preach only Hinduism, we will have failed to follow Vivekananda’s message and our own founding articles. We have to make a conscious and ongoing commitment to tie Ramakrishna-Vedanta teachings into Western philosophical and Judeo-Christian religious traditions. In so doing, we will re-invigorate Western philosophic and religious traditions among contemporary Americans who have practically forgotten their own heritage.
For our Vedanta Societies to expand, we must tailor our message to reach new people. Too often we seem to be content with preaching to those who are already familiar with and accepting of the message of Vedanta. Someone who walks into one of our Sunday spiritual talks should be able to grasp immediately and benefit from what is said, without knowing anything of Hinduism or Vedanta beforehand. Spiritual talks that are replete with Sanskrit slokas and stories about unfamiliar holy people will tend to overwhelm a newcomer with a lot of information for which he or she has no frame of reference.
God is real and can be experienced directly; this experience is the purpose of life; and by serving God in Man we can attain the highest illumination. These are the wonderful teachings of Vedanta that will transform multitudes in years to come if they can be presented with clarity and conviction.
Karl Whitmarsh has been associated with the Vedanta Society of Southern California (VSSC) since 1970. Until recently, Karl served as President of VSSC’s Board of Directors. He and his wife Jamie moved to Ireland in March of this year (2020). Karl can be reached at email@example.com.