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Culture Thu Feb 10 2011

Seeking Peace on Lake Michigan

This story was submitted by freelance journalist and author, Ted McClelland.

At six o'clock on a Friday night, there are no lights on at the Vivekananda Vedanta Society temple, a Prairie-style building on a dark crossroads in rural Homer Glen. But the door is open, so you go inside, slip off your shoes, and follow the intensifying scent of incense, up the stairs, to the sanctuary, where a little man in an orange robe is sliding blue velvet slipcovers over framed photographs of Hindu mystics, which repose on burnished mahogany thrones.

Swami Varadananda does this every night, at the end of prayers.

The Vivekananda Vedanta Society's temple is only two years old, but its roots in Chicago go back over a century, longer than any non-Judeo-Christian religion. The society traces its origins in the 1893 Parliament of Religions, a sideshow to Chicago's Columbian Exposition. The Raja of Khetri provided a wandering monk named Vivekananda with a first-class steamer ticket from Bombay to Vancouver. When he arrived in Chicago, without an invitation, he knocked on doors in the Gold Coast until a wealthy society matron gave him breakfast and introduced him to the Parliament's president.

Vivekananda's appearance at the Parliament was an important moment for both the United States and India. The Hindu monk introduced yoga and meditation to the Americans, who would adopt both practices, although as self-improvement disciplines, not spiritual undertakings. In Vivekananda's homeland, his journey is remembered as the first time the West seriously acknowledged Indian culture.

"Everybody in India knows he came to Chicago in 1893," Swami Varadananda says. "All the later freedom fighters, like Gandhi, looked back at this. This put India on the world stage. The Indians were made to feel by the British that they were inferior to the West. Then he came to America and had a big success. It really uplifted the Indian nation."

In Chicago, Vivekananda delivered a dozen addresses on Vedic Hinduism. He held classes at the Auditorium Hotel and spoke on "Modern Schools of Hinduism" at the University of Chicago Chapel. At Hull House, he delivered an address on "Economic and Social Conditions in India." The man who considered everything holy, and all religions expressions of the same Godhead, even found spiritual enlightenment in Lake Michigan. One full moon even, he was walking along the beach when he felt a oneness with Brahman. Vivekananda had a vision of his guru, Ramakrishna, and remembered the work that had brought him to America.

After his smash hit appearance at the Parliament, Vivekananda embarked on a lecture tour of the United States. "I am cruising the length and breadth of the country," he wrote, "but Chicago is my Math" -- or monastery -- "where I always return after my wanderings."

Vivekananda died in 1902, at the age of 39, but his mission of bringing Eastern philosophy to America was carried on by fellow monks. In 1930, a swami named Gnaneswarananda arrived in Chicago and set up his monastery at 120 E. Delaware Pl. The Indian presence in the United States was negligible, so most of his disciples were American-born seekers and pantheists.

"Vivekananda foresaw the cooperation between the East and the West," says Swami Varadananda, who was himself born in Centralia, IL, and began practicing Hinduism while stationed with the Army in Germany. "He saw India had this spiritual knowledge, and the West had this progress. He said you had to bring the two together."

Until two years ago, the society's headquarters was in Hyde Park. But as Indians emigrated to America, they came to dominate the membership. And most live in the suburbs. The new center, designed by Indian architects and engineers, is only four miles from the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago in Lemont, which has a 10-foot-tall statue of Vivekananda.

On this Friday night, the four devotees who have come to hear Swami Varadananda lecture on meditation are all Indian.

The swami begins his lecture with a series of chants. Then, he asks us to meditate for fifteen minutes. I try, but I can't empty mind. I keep thinking about how I'm going to write this story, about how my scrotum itches, about how I'm only going to get paid half as much to write as I used to get paid before the recession. I have what some gurus call a monkey mind, always hopping from one thought to another. In a moment, I find out why.

"Religion is not a set of dogmas; religion is an experience," he says. "You have to have the actual experience of God, and the way to do this is searching within. God is not up in heaven, he's there within your own inner consciousness."

As a Christian, I like the idea of a deity outside myself who I can call on as a friend, and who did some of the hard work for my salvation by sacrificing himself on the cross. Hinduism is an inner-directed religion. It sounds like more responsibility than I want to take on. On the other hand, you can take as many lifetimes as you need to get it right. The cycle of rebirth will end only when you end your attachment to wealth and carnal pleasure. Only then will you "know who you are."

After the lecture, the Indians prostrate themselves before the altar, touching their foreheads to the burgundy carpet. It's a white tiled stage, garlanded with flowers. A six-inch high wooden fence warns, "Do Not Cross." A proscenium beam bears the emblems of four great religions: a Star of David, a cross, a wheel and a crescent moon. After making his obeisance, a young man draws a white curtain, hiding the gurus' portraits for the night.

Like so many successful Chicago endeavors, the Vivekananda Vedanta Society also has a vacation home in Michigan.

Some time in the 1960s, a carload of swamis were traveling north on the Blue Star Highway, near Saugatuck. Members of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago, they were looking for a country retreat. It would be so much easier to meditate away from the bustle of the big city. By chance, they passed through the hamlet of Ganges. It sounded propitious. Ganges is the name of the holiest river in India!

By chance, a 120-acre orchard was for sale, by the lake. The swamis purchased it, and turned it into the most quiescent spot on Lake Michigan. Today, it is inhabited year-round by two caretakers and two cats, coming to life only on weekends, when Hindus from all over the Midwest gather to pray, worship their gods, and enjoy vegetarian Indian food, served family style.

One of the caretakers is Harri Das, an ascetically thin, bearded man who often dresses in a white robe, like Mahatma Gandhi, and walks in bare feet. Harri, whose name means "servant of God," grew up in the conservative suburb of Wheaton, IL, but embraced Hinduism as a college student.

"It was a well-to-do family," Harri says. "I found I didn't have to work to earn a living. Very early on, I felt like living like a monk. I didn't want to become a professional and get a job."

Every day, Harri rises before dawn for the morning worship service, then spends his day doing chores, such as mowing walking paths through the wildflowers.
"I like it," he says. "I meditate. I work on paintings. I'm an artist. We have a wonderful balance of being a hermit five days a week, and a social life two days a week."

Since Indians began emigrating to the United States in the 1970s, the retreat's appeal has broadened. On the Saturday I visit, fifty worshipers are there for the weekend, sleeping in dormitories segregated by sex. The featured speaker is Swami Tyagananda, a visiting monk from Boston, dressed head to toe in orange robes, which signify purifying fire. The swami lectures on freeing oneself from material possession. Obviously, he knows his audience's weakness: Indians are the highest-earning ethnic group in the U.S.

"Once you get what you want, immediately, with no gap, the mind looks for something else," he says. "The feeling of want, the feeling that I lack something, is one of the most basic ingredients in us, to keep us from fulfillment. But if you don't want anything, you will get everything."

After the lecture, devotees prostrate themselves at the swami's feet and question him on spiritual matters. Among the devout is Siva Muthuswamy, a biologist from Columbus, Ohio. It is his twelfth visit to the retreat. Later, over a lunch of dal, nan bread, and stewed fruit, he talks about its importance in his spiritual life.

"I go to temple in Columbus, and I have a shrine in my home," he says. "I was looking for a similar group of people, so I started coming here. There are two important things in his spiritual growth. One is ideology. The other is to practice with like-minded people."

Muthuswamy car-pooled to Ganges with two friends. Neither are devout Hindus, but they see the retreat as a place to connect with their Indian heritage. Jayanta Chatterjee wears traditional white pajamas. Surjasikha Ganguli is dressed in a bright red robe called a salwar kusta. Columbus doesn't have a large Indian community, so they wouldn't feel comfortable wearing those clothes on the street.

The three young Indians are joined at the table by Dr. Hugh Savage, a physician. Dr. Savage is a Catholic, but he attends the Chicago temple on a regular basis.

"This has been very enlarging, very helpful to understand my own faith," he says. "Anything that helps you become more spiritually aware is good. We have an endless need of spirituality. We have a finite need of religiosity."

The day ends with a divine service in the temple. A larger-than-life-sized statue of Swami Vivekananda stands outside the heavy wooden doors. Inside, the altar is garlanded with red and orange flowers. Harri rings a bell and offers a plate of fruit to the gods. In the pews, the worshipers chant Sanskrit hymns, then meditate silently.

The next afternoon, the retreat will be empty again, except for Harri and his fellow caretaker, Vishwanath. (The Vivekananda Vedanta society has 13 temples in the United States; it's typical to pair an Indian and an American.) Vishwanath, who was a commercial artist in India, has been here for six years, leaving the retreat only once a week, to shop, or climb a dune in Saugatuck. He was drawn here, he says, "like iron filings to a magnet," but soon, he hopes to return to India.

"There is no vacation here -- all thirty days we have to work," he says. "But this environment is holy. There is no trace of anything impious here. Where God is, always the vibrations are there. Somehow, you feel you are not lonely."

 
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