Pilgrimage to Ridgley Manor,USA

A few years ago, Vish a friend who had lived for a long period in the US and had come back to resettle in Mysuru and I were talking about Swami Vivekananda and how his message had inspired me. Our talk drifted to how Swamiji was a tireless worker and how so much was done by him in such a short time. We started talking how the Vedanta Society in New York was established by Swamiji in 1894 even before he set up the Ramakrishna Math in Belur. Vish suddenly asked me if I had visited the Ridgley Manor in the state of New York, a place that Swami Vivekananda had visited in April 1894.

 

          The entrance to the Retreat                                The Manor house

Ridgley Manor was the farm house that Francis Legget (husband of Betty McLeod and the brother-in-law of Josephine MacLeod) had built in Stone Ridge, a few hours’ drive from the city of New York. While I had read all about how Swamiji had visited this place three times and how he had once spent 10 weeks recuperating here, I had not known that the property was now in the possession of the Ramakrishna Math and they had made this into a Retreat Center. Since this little discussion, I have always been wanting to visit this place every time I visited the USA but could never do so. I had mentioned this to Arun Karpur (a good friend and someone who has taken on the role of ensuring that I have a comfortable and safe stay in the US every time I come) and he too was excited and wanted to join me. We had been planning on this trip for over three years now and could make it only this year. The two days (Sept 29 & 30, 2018) spent here is something that I will cherish and remember for the rest of my life.

With Arun

With Arun on the porch on which Swamiji was photographed (see photo collection below)

This place is also special because three direct disciples of Bhagwan Ramakrishna spent time together – Swami Vivekananda, Swami Turiyananda and Swami Abhedanananda.

Swamiji's visit

Sister Nivedita too visited this place and stayed during one of the visits of the Swamiji. All this and more can be read in the wonderful journey of Swami Vivekananda captured by Marie Louise Burke (Sister Gargi) in the chapter “The Great Summer,” which is a part of the fifth volume of the six volume work SWAMI VIVEKANANDA IN THE WEST: NEW DISCOVERIES.

 

The couch that Swamiji liked to take his rest and the bed used by him

Visiting this place and reliving the moments, thinking how it must have been then transported me to another dimension. The place is one endless stream of holy vibration and one can only experience it. Words are surely inadequate to describe what I went thru on those two days. Seeing the couch that Swamiji used to sit on, the bed that he slept in, the room that he stayed in and more than anything – his favourite spot for mediation.

Meditation site Oak

Swamiji loved meditating under a large oak tree (the original tree is no longer there, but another one exists in its place) and this spot has been carefully preserved. Meditating on the same spot was and will continue to remain a life-changing experience for me.

All this might seem emotive and sentimental, but for someone whose entire life and existence is driven by the energy and inspiration drawn from Swami Vivekananda, this visit is life-giving. Spending time in a place where you can feel and perceive Swamiji’s presence – this was my way of re-charging not just my spirits but also reaffirming to myself the purpose of my existence.

-Balu

From here and there…

Many a friend has asked me about my regular visits to the US and about the teaching I do here. One oft repeated question has been, ‘What are the major similarities & differences that you see between the two countries? ‘ And knowing my background, another question usually asked is about my continued commitment to the causes I espouse back home in India and how it relates to my visiting the US?

India, as Swami Vivekananda put it is the Punyabhumi (holy land) and the Karmabhumi (land of one’s work) for me. The last 35 years has seen me live and work amidst the most challenging circumstances in the area abutting the Bandipur Tiger Reserve; spend the last few years in Mysuru engaging in Leadership training and Policy Research; and teach & train on Leadership around the world including the USA. It has seen me found two non-profits and one of them has grown to be one of India’s largest and well-known development organizations and the other is creating its own name in the area of participatory research & citizen centric policy advocacy. India has not just been home to me and has laid the foundation for my way of thinking but has given me the very purpose for my existence. To me India, or if I were to relate emotionally, ‘Bharat’ – is a land rich in civilizational history. It has taught me to be a Hindu in its truest interpretation – someone who lives embracing the whole world as one and constantly tries to see God in everything and everyone. It is this spirit of Hinduism that has given me the understanding of not just tolerance but that of universal acceptance – of religions, ideas, ideologies and countries – with all their differences and similarities. It is the Indian thought and ethos that has given me the ability to see ‘separateness in togetherness’ & ‘togetherness in separateness’. It is these thoughts that help me not just embrace Global citizenship but continually give me the energy to live and spread the message of ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’ (the world is one family). Growing up in a typical Indian middle-class family gave me the values that helps me be flexible but yet grounded. It has taught me to be resilient in moments of distress & crisis while not rejoicing or getting overwhelmed with emotion when things go one’s way. The spirit of collectivism which is embedded in the National identity has helped shape my character and served as the foundation of my organizational work. And my source of strength comes from one of India’s greatest sons – Swami Vivekananda, but for whose life and message, mine would have not been worth living. It is from his message that I draw inspiration for all that I have done and continue to do. Whether it was the journey of finding myself in the service of others, in the idea of my building organizations or my economic thought, my social change theories or my views on human development – they all are expressions of this message of Swami Vivekananda. It is his message of reciprocity & interdependence that led me to explore what India has to offer to the world and what India could also receive from the World. This is what has led me to some of the things I am doing today – whether it is crafting leadership training and curriculum driven by the message of the Gita or our Upanishads; teaching in Ivy leagues or training Corporate leaders from around the world. For it is my belief that the world can be made into a better place only by extraordinary people who take it on themselves to exercise the kind of leadership that goes beyond the SELF and is willing not just to focus on ‘external nature’ but also look inwards into our own ‘internal nature’.

It is this conviction that is now driving me to visit several countries and the most visited is the United States. I find that the USA is still a country where we can find several similarities in terms of what India stands for and is challenged by in today’s current reality. Whether it is the spirit of democratic governance or that of ‘voice’ and its expression; the constant search for meaning amidst the rush for material comforts; or the struggle for balancing human development and the state of the environment…we have a lot to give and learn from each other. Swami Vivekananda always maintained that we need to learn practical everyday management from the West while giving them our Vedantic knowledge. While much of this continues to be true even today, I feel that we have a lot to offer in terms of leadership knowledge while at the same time looking for what we can learn from here. Though I have been coming here for more than 3 decades, I have never stopped being fascinated by the ‘eye for detail’ that people have when they are executing projects. Whether it is elaborate planning, meticulous execution or timely evaluation – I have been impressed by how and why they do all this. Though people here are trained to be self-led individuals, one cannot but be impressed by the spirit of community action that pervades. Whether it is the number of non-profits or the philanthropy that ordinary people indulge in or participating in several civic events voluntarily, or the love & warmth that generally pervades – we do have a lot to learn from all this. Whether it is dignity of labour, or the spirit of enterprise or the quest for perfection and the levels of trust in society, the way natural beauty & resources are preserved and conserved – it is up to us to pick what we want to learn from.

While every country and civilization have its own share of ‘historical & ideological garbage’ and problems, it is up to us to focus on the positive and explore what mutual learnings each one has to bring to the table. It is always easy to criticize and blame, explain away why the ‘other’ is different and should not exist; why everyone needs to be & think like us’ to make things better – but finally we need to remember that we need to find ways to bring people together, not discover means to separate them every day and in everything that we do. Global citizenship can no longer by the cliché that it has now come to become; it has to be a way of life. And my conviction is that there are two countries that can make this happen – India and the USA – working together and crafting the narrative for this globally. It is when people & leaders from these two countries learn to see beyond their differences and come together with the common purpose of making lives better – not just for their citizens but for everyone on this planet – can we hope to find  peace & harmony, make development sustainable, reduce inequality & make  poverty obsolete and create all that is good & wonderful for all of us.

-Balu

Building a resurgent India

“There were many good things in the ancient times, but there were bad things too. The good things are to be retained, but the India that is to be, the future India, must be much greater than ancient India.” – Swami Vivekananda

India is now going through a momentous phase of transition. While we race to catch up with a world being connected seamlessly through digital technology, we can find new ideas and new ideologies bombarding us from all sides. It is at times like this that we need to pause and ask ourselves whether we are going in the right direction and at the right pace. We need to explore as a nation whether we are building our future based on the lessons of our past or are getting caught up in the mindless pursuit of mere economic growth. This is also the time for us to revalidate the relevance of the message of Swami Vivekananda and his vision for India. Vivekananda dreamed of seeing Mother India in all her glory on the resplendent throne where she rightfully belonged. If we are to go beyond the romance of this statement, we first need to understand where we are today and what the challenges are ahead of us. We also need to understand where we were in the past and what lessons we can learn from the rich history of our culture and civilisation.

India of Today: The whole country is agog with the excitement of change. Everyone seems obsessed with our growing visibility around the world and is increasingly focusing on economic growth and the trappings of visible development. We seem to be overlooking the fact that despite this constant progress and growth, 50 per cent of children under five years of age suffer from undernutrition1. While on the one hand we are making rapid strides in space and defence technology, on the other hand a large part of our rural population still lacks basic amenities, including clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. 37% of our young people drop out of school by the time they reach the tenth grade. Gender and caste inequities are very real and distressing. Despite all our scientific attainments, close to 75% of our graduating youth lack employable skills. What we are building today in our children and youth is mere cognitive growth and not the overall social, emotional, and spiritual evolution of a balanced person. As a society, we are seeing a rapid erosion of our social capital, with visible manifestations of trust deficit, lowered interdependence, and vanishing reciprocity. Monetisation has become the metric of human success and attainment, while other dimensions of human achievement are getting marginalised. While one can argue that the benefits of our growth will trickle down and most of our citizens can indeed aspire to a better life, we need to recognise the challenges ahead of us.

The Challenges Ahead: India’s progress is going to be determined by how well we can manage three major challenges facing us. The first is the increasing intolerance that we are seeing and the growing reality of religious fundamentalism. Religion has now become a political tool. Not a day passes without evidence of this threat in some part of the world or the other – whether it is India, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Afghanistan, Egypt, or the United States. The second major challenge that is becoming more evident is growing economic inequity. The gap between the rich and the poor is the widest in our recent history. The top 10% of Indians generate and control more than 75% of India’s wealth, while the bottom 20% are generating and controlling less than 1%. The increasing economic tensions are having social ramifications, and outbursts of violence are no longer the exception. The third major issue is the manner in which technology is rapidly disrupting everyday life, manufacturing, and services. This makes demands on our youth to acquire skills that are not easily available and that are out of the reach of most of our rural population. Our ability to resolve these vexatious issues will eventually determine whether we are able to place India on the world stage and give our people the life that they deserve. What can we do to confront this reality and find realistic and pragmatic solutions? It is here that the message of Swami Vivekananda and his plan for building India’s future give us a solution. Swamiji strongly believed in learning from our past in order to build our future. While he was a romantic lover of everything Indian, he was also pragmatic enough to identify the ills that we had accumulated over the years and that had to be mercilessly discarded.

Our Rich and Hoary Past: An objective assessment of the India of the past in multiple dimensions demonstrates how advanced we were as a society. The work of the English economic historian Angus Madison conclusively proves the wealth of our nation from the beginning of the Christian era up till 1600 CE. He mentions how the Indian civilisation, with its enormous intellectual, trading, and manufacturing capacity produced 35% of global GDP and was possibly the richest country in the world during those 16 continuous centuries. It was also during this time that India contributed the binary system and the concepts of algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. Metallurgy and the chemical sciences were far advanced, and knowledge of astronomy, physics, democracy, and political science was at its peak. Apart from the sciences of the ‘external’, Indian scriptures were rich in their understanding of the ‘internal’. From psychology to spirituality, our thinkers made contributions that the rest of the world had yet to discover. One can safely say that this was the glorious era of Indian civilisation. The focus was on increasing the human and social capital of India. This obviously resulted in enormous economic benefits.

The Way Forward: Swami Vivekananda strongly believed in the control of man’s inner nature in order to ensure the optimal utilisation of resources and efective functioning in the external world. He could see how a colonised and conquered India had lost her moorings, and he felt the urgency to rebuild her human and social capital. Swamiji understood that a full expression of human potential would happen only when man constantly expanded his physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual capabilities. Only then could he have the capacity to lead and sustain his life. He understood that ‘education’ had to go beyond mere schooling and result in the expression of the inner perfection already inherent in man. He could also relate physical growth to mental and emotional growth. He asked young Indians to make their biceps stronger before embarking on the study of the Gita. For him, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence were as critical as social intelligence for man to progress and grow. He gave a new meaning and dimension to the pursuit of spirituality by making it practical and socially pragmatic. His call to serve the God in man as a means of spiritual evolution is possibly the most practical means of connecting man’s inner nature with the outer world. Swamiji’s message of working for the poor and the marginalised and the call for inner evolution and not an outer revolution further strengthens this argument. His thoughts on organising people and building institutions reflect the emphasis he placed on social capital. He knew that a country could not be built on sand and that democratic institutions can be created and sustained only by people of mettle.

And what India needs today is to revisit this concept of building a complete man, who can in turn create and manage institutions and thus build a great country. We need people with the qualities of compassion, humanism, a spirit of enquiry, humour, mindful existence, positive thinking and the intent to be good and do good. Imagine a nation that is led by a type of humankind that is responsible in its consumption, respectful of all of nature’s creation, constantly striving for both internal and external peace, harmony, and good will. Such a country would be wonderful indeed, where sharing and caring would be second nature to humankind and the mad rush to acquire everything for just oneself would be a thing of the past. Imagine such a nation where these self-evolved humans are interconnected and live with the awareness of mutual trust, interdependence and reciprocity! That is the social capital that India badly needs if it wants to stop hurtling towards self-destruction. India now needs a new narrative that talks about creating and expanding this human and social capital based on Swamiji’s vision. Sustainable development will then not be a mere slogan or a fashionable statement that is talked about, but a practical and realistic attempt to build this New India.  In that new vision for India, development will be seen in terms of increased security and liberty for communities and individuals.  This means that people will have the political space to voice their problems and choose the solutions that best represent them. Dominant players in development – whether they are the government, or civil society, or the corporate world—will then take the time to listen to people with respect and provide them with the platform to articulate their just and legitimate aspirations.

India needs to become a pioneer in translating this vision of development into concrete reality, where the rule of law is the norm rather than the exception, where no Indian will go hungry, where human rights are not a mere slogan but a way of life, where democratic participation is not a fanciful aspiration but an everyday expression of citizenship, and where food, nutrition, livelihood, infrastructure, education, health care, and religious freedoms are not mere political promises but entitlements of an empowered citizenry. This is the India that Swami Vivekananda spoke of—and the India that we need to create.

– Balu

References:

The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, Mayavati Memorial Edition, Vol.6, p, 318
https://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/OD56/OD56.pdf https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_supply_and_sanitation_in_India https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3662127/ http://monitor.icef.com/2015/10/indias-employability-challenge/ http://www.thehindu.com/data/indias-staggering-wealth-gap-in-five-charts/article6672115.ece
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_history_of_India

Swami Vivekananda and the Ice House

Last month I had the privilege of running a leadership workshop for young people at Chennai. More than running the workshop, it was the location where it was being held that excited me. It was being hosted by the Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai and held at the Vivekanandar Illam (Vivekananda House, originally known as the Ice House). What would be so special in a building named after this great saint? After all, our country’s historical landscape is replete with memorials commemorating an extraordinary event or is associated with an outstanding personality in some way. This building overlooking the Marina beach in Chennai is also no different. It is not merely a building named after Swamiji but was something that invoked a special sense of awe and reverence for me.

Swamiji was a constant traveller and he visited Tamil Nadu twice – once in 1892 as a wandering monk and again in 1897 after his triumphal return from the West. He arrived at Pamban in Rameshwaram island on the 26th January 1897 and then travelled through Madurai, Trichy and other places to finally reach Madras (present Chennai). He received an unprecedented reception at the Egmore Railway station where he had reached by train and reached the Castle Kernan (as it was then known) the next day. It was here that he stayed for 9 days, from 6th to 15th of February 1897 and gave his popular talks on ‘My Plan of Campaign’ and ‘The Future of India’. These are two articles that have influenced my life and thinking enormously.

Castle Kernan was earlier known as the ‘Ice House’ where the Tudor Ice Company stored the ice it brought from the United States. The Ice house was built in 1842 by Fredric Tudor. Tudor who was known as the ‘Ice King’ had made his fortune by shipping ice to the Caribbean, Europe and India. He had struck on the idea of harvesting ice from frozen fresh water ponds in and around Boston, cut them into blocks and sold them around the world. He had built three Ice Houses in India – at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras where the ice could be stored for months. Amongst the three buildings, only the one at Madras stands today. Once people learnt to manufacture ice locally, the ice business of his shrank and eventually wound up in 1880. It was then an advocate, Biligiri Iyengar who originally hailed from Mysuru, bought the ‘Ice House’ and renamed it ‘Castle Kernan’ in honour of his good friend Justice Kernan. Biligiri Iyengar and his family lived here till 1906, when family circumstances including the demise of Biligiri in 1902 forced them to auction off the building.

Vivekandanda-Illam-1

It was also in this building that Swami Ramakrishnananda, another direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa set up the Ramakrishna Math and lived. The Government of Tamil Nadu has now given this building on a long lease to the Ramakrishna Math who have restored it to its original state. The restoration process also has a Mysuru connection with architect Mr. Ravi Gundu Rao overseeing the entire restoration process.

Sitting in the room where Vivekananda lived and spending some quiet moments there was what made the visit very special to me.

Balu

Pursuit of unselfishness in the practice of spirituality

“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And, if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when? If not me, who?”

– Hillel the Elder, In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers)

The country is getting younger and everyone seems to wishfully want the demographic dividend to start paying off. We see more and more young achievers today and one is able to feel and sense the sociological and economic transformation that is occurring all around us. But when one scratches a little deeper and starts to observe and study what is happening more intently, we can notice that all is not as well as what one thinks. One can then see the frustrations and the emptiness that many of the young are today experiencing. Despite the individual attainments and the material comforts that surround them, there exist an unexplained restlessness that is very troubling. They seem to be suffering the consequences of the irony of having everything material but still finding themselves missing something unexplainable. A discontent that is not explainable or articulated in terms that they can currently comprehend. And in seeking to fill this emptiness, they turn to either drugs, or more transient pleasures or seek out the ‘instant’ gurus or in desperation commit suicide. It is as though, we have a generation of people who have trained themselves well cognitively but seem to be woefully inadequate when it comes to their emotional, social and spiritual competencies. We seem to have a generation of people who are unable to manage their inner conflict and tensions and unfortunately have no role models to look upto and learn from, in solving these problems. In our enthusiasm to imitate the consumerist cultures, we seem to have become experts in managing external environments and adapting our selves well to it, but have lost the ability to look inwards and learn to manage our own inner selves. Many young people I interact with, not surprisingly have no idea of what their existence means or why they are doing what they are doing – it is as though they are continuing to live with absolutely no meaning to life itself.

Imagine what such a rich talent pool could achieve if there was someway of getting them to seek a meaning for their lives, a meaning that not only gives them personal fulfillment but is also able to make them feel worthwhile and awakens their inner evolution. While looking inward may not come easily, would there be some way of using the means of looking outward to go inward? Will living for others give our lives the meaning that one is hungry for? Will the desire to make a difference in this world without seeking any personal reward or incentive drive our emptiness out? I believe that this is not only possible but is necessary. And it is here that Swami Vivekananda’s message of personal spiritual growth through selfless service finds relevance and utility.

Swami Vivekananda was not only a visionary spiritual giant but also very pragmatic when it came to matters of national reconstruction. He not only appreciated the energy and restlessness of the youth but also the problems of the toiling millions. He knew that bridging the prevailing inequity couldn’t be possible without making the ‘Self’ think of the ‘others’. He had to find the delicate balance of getting people to re-focus on matters spiritual without feeling unsettled and overawed. And he did it in the most practical manner possible. He inspired young people with a new meaning of finding themselves in the service of others. His method of personal spiritual evolution through unconditional and unselfish service to others is possibly his greatest message to mankind. He saw the ‘means’ of serving society leading on to the ‘end’ of spiritual growth of the person doing it. And he so beautifully advised us to ‘Serve God in man’. All his philosophy so elegantly and simplistically packed into one statement. In such simple and lucid language that makes it at once achievable and attractive to everyone. This ideal not only looks within the reach of each one of us but also makes it so emotionally appealing and motivating to undertake. And he simplified the pursuit of spiritual seeking into internalizing our own inner divinity and in seeing this divinity in everyone else.

Traditionally spirituality has been defined as a process of personal transformation in accordance with one’s religious ideals. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines ‘Spirituality’ as “the experience or expression of the sacred.” ‘Unselfishness’ is traditionally understood as the willingness to put the needs of others before one’s own. It is about giving generously and having or showing more concern for other people rather than for yourself. Combining these two powerful abstractions into a practical way of life is what Swami Vivekananda showed this world. His statement that ‘Unselfishness is more paying, only people have not the patience to practice it’ also shows that being unselfish is easier said than done. Man is wired to be centered on himself. He is biologically and psychologically tuned to ensure his own survival and this usually leads one to stay focused on issues of interest and benefit to the personal self. Today’s demanding materialistic world only amplifies these tendencies and it is indeed challenging to go beyond oneself and focus on others around us. Only when one appreciates the higher reason for one’s existence and sees the benefit of personal evolution, can the focus shift from the ‘personal’ to the unselfish ‘other’. We need to seek liberation by giving ourselves fully to the task of the welfare of others. Redefining ‘success’ from the non-materialistic perspective is also critical for ensuring this shift. Unselfish work done for others can be a very constructive and a practical way of approaching spirituality.

While the practical benefits of societal transformation is clearly evident in selfless work, there is an increasing body of literature and evidence showing how such activities also enable our own inner change. Research in the leadership sciences shows that a effective and inspirational leader is filled with compassion, mindfulness, hope, ability to create a meaning for life for himself and those around him, and Faith and self confidence. It is no co-incidence that such leaders are the ones who have also found meaning in not their personal welfare but in the service of others. The higher the degree of this unselfish attitude, the higher is their effectiveness and the ability to influence those around them. The world of neuroscience also indicates how a truly unselfish man constantly seeking to serve others has better developed pre-frontal cortex in his brain. We also need to see this in the perspective of similar evidence being reported in people who are spiritual and spend long hours in reflective and meditative practices. The coming days will surely expand this neuro-scientific interconnectedness between a life led for others and spiritual existence.

Unselfish work can also be a practical way of practicing Self-enquiry. It provides a good platform for looking and exploring outside us in our search of the missing ‘equilibrium’ in our lives. Analyzing the state of people around us, the problems that they are enduring, the endless suffering of mankind are all excellent starting points. In the pursuit of these questions is the beginning of seeking solutions and trying to become a part of the solution with no personal stake in them. The next higher step would be to gradually transcend this sense of duality of ‘self’ and ‘others’ and move on to experiencing the ‘oneness’ that Advaitic philosophy talks about. Seeing god in all beings including oneself is a good starting point to experiencing oneness and going beyond the feeling of interconnectedness. Unselfish work is a practical means of achieving the higher objective of understanding our true self; it is about going beyond the illusory limitations of our body and mind and being liberated once and for all. This is undercurrent that runs throughout the life and message of Swami Vivekananda. And this is succinctly captured in his statement of ‘Atmano Mokshartham Jagath hitayacha’.

– Balu

The Leadership message of Swami Vivekananda

This is the talk given by me on the leadership message of Swami Vivekananda. This is part of the lecture series that i am giving in my role as the Visiting Professor of the Vivekananda Chair of the University of Mysore. This lecture was given at VLEAD on the 27th of May 2014.