Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ramakrishna Vedanta Society

Ramakrishna Vedanta Society 
Marina Williams 
Lesley University
February 27, 2013

In deciding on a site for my midterm project I wanted to choose a site that I probably wouldn’t go to. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and observe something new and unfamiliar. The aspect of yoga I thought of as least related to what I think of as yoga, was philosophy. And for this reason, I chose to visit the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society Center of Boston. From researching this center’s website I got the feeling that the Ramakrishna Center was very welcoming of all types of faith. Indeed the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society Center is welcoming of all cultures, faiths, and ages.
            Vedanta in New England came about from the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, whom although he lived a short life had an immense impact on the introduction of Vedanta into Eastern culture. He was a follower of Sri Ramakrishna and wanted to spread his teachings to others. He began in 1893, giving talks around New England before becoming a prestigious religious figure at the World Parliament of Regions in that same year. He lived his life for just about forty years. Thanks to him, other Swamis started to give lectures on Vedanta philosophy. In 1910, Swami Paramananda established the first Vedanta center in Boston, which would later be moved to the Ramakrishna Center’s current location at 58 Deerfield Street, Boston, MA and known as the Ramakrishna Vedanta Center. This Center has been around for over a hundred years now and  provides a place for anyone to come and practice prayer, worship, and meditation. The Ramakrishna Center is currently led under the instruction of Swami Tyagananda. The Center serves a wide range of people seeing as that their programs and services are welcome to anyone. The majority of the people who do attend practice Hinduism but the attendees are not limited to those who strictly practice that religion. People of Christian background do also attend. Other services which they offer includes Sunday School, which is provided for children of all ages  with a focus on prayer and activities while adults may attend Satsang, a compilation of prayer, music, meditation, and reflection. Not only are there programs offered at the center but Swami Tyagananda also conducts programs at different colleges throughout the Boston area as well as classes to teach the philosophy of Vedanta and the search for the true self. Interviews with the Swami are also available to the public upon request.
            I attended a Meditation service on a Tuesday because that was the only program that fit into my schedule. I was very nervous about going there, especially alone. Although they seemed very welcoming, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Once I arrived at the Ramakrishna Center a Caucasian woman opened the door for me and let me in. I was honestly expecting someone of Indian descent to be letting me in. I got in the door and my heart was beating a mile a minute. What really caught my attention was how extremely quiet it was when I entered; it gave the place a kind of somber feeling, although the quiet is supposed to create an aura of peace. I saw a coat rack with shoes underneath and immediately led myself over to that area. So many questions were running through my head because I didn’t see any people around, so I figured maybe I was late. I asked the woman, who seemed to be in charge of tables of books for sale, if it was required for me to remove my shoes. She told me it was optional but better to remove my shoes. I did so and then asked her to direct me towards the room for meditation. She pointed through the hall and said to me that the Swami would be down by 6:00 pm. As I walked through the hall I tried to prepare myself to focus on the meditation and my breathing as we do in class, which seemed to get me even more nervous. I finally got to the room for the program and although I had seen a picture online of the room it still surprised me. It looked somewhat like there was going to be a small church service, because of the way the chairs were set up. There was a slightly raised altar at the front of the room with pictures of three figures each with an oil-burning candle in front. The chairs were all facing the altar. On either side of the altar there were portrait photos of four other figures. On the walls there were scriptures from other religions to show acceptance of all religions or even no religion at all. The mood of the room was still very somber, almost as if I were at a funeral. I was expecting maybe for the room’s atmosphere to radiate peacefulness. This somber feeling may have been due to the fact that I was the only person who came for meditation. There may have been a different feeling if other people who regularly practice meditation were there. Sitting there before the program invoked many thoughts within me. Since it felt like a church, I almost felt as if I were betraying my own religion by sitting there about to practice something different. I soon realized after purchasing a few books that were for sale after the program that Vedanta is not about one specific religion. Vedanta is more a religious philosophy that resonates mostly with Hinduism but can relate to any religion. Vedanta is a universal philosophy, which makes sense that anyone is welcome to come practice and participate in the programs without changing their religious beliefs. In many different religions it is standard that persons with no religion or of a different religion are welcome but they are welcomed with the expectation that they might change their religious beliefs afterwards. The receptive nature of Vedanta made me more open to learning about it and also made it easier to comprehend. This was because I was able to relate Vedanta back to my own religion and see it from the view of my religion, rather than the view of some religion that I am new to or unfamiliar with. The purpose is attaining spiritual realization no matter what one’s religion is.
I would say that in theory all concepts are virtually the same speaking of “basic truths about God, the world, and our relationship to one another” ( Vrajaprana, 3) .
            My experience through practice there was not what my eastern culture view of yoga is. When I think of yoga I think of the average middle or higher-class Caucasian woman doing. in my opinion, impossible poses. The type of practice that is more for physical benefit. The practice at the Ramakrishna center is more for benefit of the mind and spirit. Yoga has evolved in our culture to have a different meaning than its original one. The word yoga “has been heard more in gyms than in religious discourse…The goal of yoga is to unite oneself with God; the practice of yoga is path we take to accomplish this” (Vrajaprana, 15). Although this center is surrounded by eastern culture, it has stuck with its original philosophy. It does not advertise the “commercial” yoga that we all know here in the United States. The Ramakrishna center provides a deeper look into the more spiritual side of yoga and not purely the physical. As I sat in the room the clock struck 6:00pm and the Swami entered the room. He seemed very focused and had a stern look on his face. He lit the three candles in front of the portrait, turned on music with people chanting something on the tracks. As he did this I felt as if I were invisible to him, which gave me almost an uncomfortable feeling, which probably stemmed from my cultural expectations. He then sat in front of the altar cross-legged and began the meditation.
As I sat there I tried to let go, focus on my breathing, and only my breathing. I thought it would be easier because of the darkness but it was still difficult as ever. Every little thing I had to get done in that week came flowing into my mind. I found myself fighting the urge to look back at the clock and see what time it was. One thought just kept leading to another making it less easy to focus by the minute. I know that the purpose of meditation is to rid the mind of disturbances and obstacles in the path to enlightenment. I would have to say that meditation is also a practice to train the mind to let go of resistance from reaching a higher state. This letting go is a constant battle with the mind and practice is the only way to improve. I was awed by Swami Tyagananda’s ability to sit in pure meditation for an hour as I sat with all the thoughts running through my head. At the end of the meditation, the Swami bowed to the altar, got up, and exited the room with out a word. This was confusing to me as it was my first time there and also being that I was the only one present. I was not sure that the meditation program had ended or it there was more to come. I made the executive decision that the program was over after a few minutes and went to have a look at the books for sale. I scanned the titles and looked for ones that I thought would relate to this project and that would give me a clear view of what exactly Vedanta was. The ones that caught my eye, I skimmed their chapters and narrowed my choices down to two book; “Meditation according to Yoga Vedanta” by Swami Siddheswarananda and “ Vedanta: A Simple Introduction” by Pravrajika Vrajaprana. I figured this was the best way to learn about the teachings because I was not able to attend a lecture or Satsang, which is on Saturdays. These gave me insight regarding what Vedanta is, because I was sure it was a religion. They also provided me with an explanation of how meditation assists in the philosophy of Vedanta.
            Ultimately I would have to say that the theory, culture, and practice of yoga at the Ramakrishna Center do not parallel that of the yoga here in America. In terms of theory the Ramakrishna Center is much more about philosophy than better health and a better body. Yoga in America is focused on a better body and better health on a much more superficial level. The culture at the Center is much more open and accepting than that of America. They welcome any culture, faith and age, while in American culture yoga is geared toward higher-class Caucasian women and privileged children. Yoga is also used as a way to make money in our society rather than help us to reach our highest potential internally. Also, yoga practice in our society is again more practices of the body than a practice of the mind like at the Ramakrishna Center. Even if Meditation is a part of some yoga sessions in our society emphasis is not really placed on it, it is more about the putting the body in action versus inaction.

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