Vedanta in America: Swami Parthasarathy opens intellect

INDIAN LOTUS, Nelumbo nucifera, the national flower.

Religious traditions of Asia are blossoming around the world and ReadTheSpirit is working hard to help English-language readers learn from many different perspectives about the spiritual gifts of Asia. Even secular political and economic analysts point to the inevitable rise of superpowers China and India—so becoming aware of these cultures is a vital part of successful living in this new millennium.

Also this week, we reported on a controversial new documentary about the Dalai Lama and Tibet, and we published a three-part series about a landmark new edition of Rumi’s poetry. (Next week, we continue circling the world from yet another perspective—an in-depth interview with the popular evangelical Christian journalist Philip Yancey, whose latest book crisscrosses several continents.)

Today, we welcome back author and journalist Lynne Schreiber, ReadTheSpirit’s occasional correspondent on Vedanta in America. We will tell you more about Lynne at the end of today’s story, including links to a couple of her past reports. The term “Vedanta” refers to spiritual movements that have blossomed from the ancient religious traditions of India. For this month’s report, Lynne had a chance to report on an American tour by one of the great Indian teachers, Swami A. Parthasarathy. This may be the first time you’ve seen his name and face, but the Dalai Lama himself has ranked this teacher among the great gurus of this era—so we are not alone in emphasizing his importance.

Here is Lynne’s latest report …

Who am I?
Swami A. Parthasarathy helps us explore
the wisdom of Vedanta—and the world opening from ourselves

by Lynne Meredith Schreiber

“All religions came from Vedanta,” says Swami A. Parthasarathy, an 83-year-old guru from India who was in southeast Michigan last week to launch his 10th book: Governing Business and Relationships. We sat cross-legged on a soft couch in the home of a family hosting Swamiji for the week in suburbia’s sunny, cool autumn.

His week was packed. The day before our interview, hundreds of people had filled the wood floor of a local yoga center for his talk. The day after our meeting was his official book launch and, on the day after that, he was scheduled to deliver a major talk on “Who am I?”

As we sat down together, I was given 30 minutes with the guru whose books I’d been studying for more than half a year, whose words had quieted the worry and anxiety that had plagued me for most of my 39 years and whose beliefs had inspired me toward the confidence I needed to believe in my native Judaism—in my very own way.

He wore sweats and a T-shirt, having just finished breakfast with his hosts—a vegetarian breakfast, because no carnivore can be tamed, Swamiji explained. “A vegetarian diet is conducive to gaining control over the mind.”

Vedanta: A spiritual path marked by questions

As I began this journey myself some years ago, I initially wondered what was happening to me, to my own traditional identity. This was back when I began attending yoga classes four years ago, before the Yoga Shelter became a client of mine, before I knew anything about Vedanta, when I was still observing life as an Orthodox Jew. I wondered if the final greeting of my first yoga class—“Namaste,” hands together in prayer before the heart, with a slight bow of the head—conflicted in any way with my devout life.

After I became a student of Vedanta, delving into Swamiji’s books (some of them are listed at the end of this story), I no longer wondered about that. In fact, I might argue that studying Vedanta has made me a better Jew.

Question everything and don’t accept anything until you’ve analyzed, scrutinized it. That is a key message from this ancient philosophy, passed on by Swamiji. That’s true even if you’ve been taught precepts and rituals since childhood. Don’t buy it until you buy it, until it makes sense to you. All of this moves toward building the intellect—rarely used essential equipment buried so deep within us that we risk falling dreadfully off-course.

“Ninety percent of humanity doesn’t read,” Swamiji said, “The ten percent who read, read linear. Nobody reads for depth of study. Just length of story. Surface information. Intellectual sensuality. When you find the Self, you become a beacon for others to follow.”

An image from India: Like the lotus, awareness can unfold

A lotus flower is born in the water, it lives in the water and it dies in the water—yet it never gets wet. That’s because this beautiful plant is endowed with a protective coating that protects it in its habitat. This was Yoga Shelter Founder Eric Paskel’s introduction of Swami Parthasarathy before one of his lectures.

“We must develop the intellect,” pleads Swamiji. “It is completely neglected today. No university, no religious institution deals with the intellect. I’m trying to blow my lungs out to tell people that there is no problem in the world except one problem: lack of awareness, lack of intellect.”

Swamiji’s father used to tell stories about how, even as a young child, Swamiji asked probing, uncomfortable questions. “I don’t remember it, but I remember him telling the stories,” Swamiji said. “From the age of 7, I would ask, ‘Was the chicken first or the egg? Where do the trees come from?’ I was an enquirer from childhood. I wasn’t comfortable with what the world had to offer.”

As Swamiji grew older, he delved into English literature, religion, eventually Vedanta. He earned degrees in literature, science, law and a post-grad in international law from London University. But in his 20s he renounced his corporate career to dedicate himself to the study of Vedanta and has become a guru and guiding light for celebrities, business leaders and individuals the world over.

It took 30 years to conduct research, reach the Self and write 10 books to put Vedanta into a form that the layman could grasp, he explains. That included a developed commentary on the Bhagavad Gita—three volumes, four years to write each one. Then he began teaching, lecturing, inspiring.

 “Once you get to the ceiling, the search ends,” he says. “You find what you want. And you have an interest in passing it on. We have a terrible situation today. A person like me develops his intellect—I see people falling one by one. It’s like a sober person watching drug addicts.”

He adds, “We got here by a sense of indulgence and emotional infatuation. Parents with children, lovers with each other. At the body level, people are sensual, want sensual gratification. It pulls you down. At the emotional level, people are infatuated. Mental infatuation leads to total disaster.”

How does one become Self-realized?

Stop being selfish is a major step, says Swamiji. “Life is the combination of spirit and matter. When you’re catering to matter, it’s selfish. When you cater to spirit, it is the Self. The opposite of selfish. Pursue the Self, that is the ultimate.”

Vedanta teaches that God, the Source, is within every single creature—not outside, not separate. Like the light of the sun that reflects on the moon, there is no light in the moon but we see moonlight. The light of God reflects from within each of us, if we let it.

And how? According to Swamiji, fix a higher ideal for yourself, work with the goal of being of service only—not for a paycheck, not to buy material items or to hoard in a bank account. Truly giving is the best goal anyone can pursue.

Ask: ‘Can I serve anybody?’

Swamiji teaches that we must ask: “Can I serve anybody? The higher you go, the higher the ideal: you, community, country, the world, all creatures. The cruelty done to animals is horrible. Right from the start, stop thinking of the self.”

In India, there is a word, pratiksha, which loosely translates as tolerance and compassion. There is no exact equivalent in English. It is a word that is essential in living a life of service and humanity. Is it merely coincidence that there is no exact correlate in our language?

“All the problems in the world arise from the mind,” says Swamiji. “The mind is feelings, emotions, likes and dislikes. The intellect thinks, reasons, judges, decides. We make a living with our intelligence. The intellect is developed by yourself. No one feeds it to you.”

Swami Parthasarathy on developing the intellect

At age 7 or 8, the intellect becomes available to you. How to develop it? Swamiji teaches:

1. Never accept anything for granted.

2. Question everything—analyze every word and accept only what your judgment approves.

Everybody is after success and peace, says Swamiji. The only real way to achieve lasting success, unending peace, is to work toward a higher ideal, drop self-centered motives and pursuits, abandon incentives and strive for initiative. And, oh: Make sure you have concentration, consistency and cooperation in every job you do.

Concentration is when the intellect holds your mind on present action; you remain in the moment. Consistency is when all actions are directed to your ideal of purpose. And cooperation is when there is  no superiority or inferiority.

“It’s not the world that bothers you; nothing in the world can disturb you except yourself,” says Swamiji. “You are the architect of your fortune or misfortune.”

He teaches: Service and sacrifice. Duties not rights. Abandon attachment—pure love is sacrificial.

If there is any one lesson I’ve taken away from Swamiji’s teachings, it’s that my personal happiness and satisfaction have nothing to do with anyone else. Not my children nor my parents, my partner nor my friends. All of the drama that so easily can overwhelm us is self-created; it doesn’t truly exist. It’s what we immerse ourselves in because it’s familiar, even if it’s not fun.

The Truth, the Self, they reside in the quiet. Maintain an objectivity of everything and everyone around us, and we can begin to see the first inklings. By assessing the nature of another, by accurately determining the parameters of a situation, by having an ideal of working toward serving others, we can correctly evaluate every decision, every interaction.

And build compassion for others. True love. Love of Self.

“The more you invest in reality—Truth—nobody can influence you,” says Swamiji.

Care to read more about Lynne Schreiber and Swami A. Parthasarathy?

Books by Swami A. Parthasarathy are available through Amazon, including:

Lynne Meredith Schreiber is a nationally known author and freelance writer who is a regular correspondent on the importance of Vedanta for ReadTheSpirit. She also is owner and chief creative officer of Your People LLC, a PR, maketing and business development company in suburban Detroit. The Yoga Shelter has been a client of her firm, long before her parallel career as a journalist eventually took her more deeply into reporting on religous movements related to ancient Indian wisdom. Stay tuned in November: Lynne’s wide-ranging reports will continue with a Q-and-A with Ram Dass, whose influence in America spans decades—and generations.

Great background reading: Here is Lynne’s overview of Vedanta, published in July 2010.

Are you a film and Sci-Fi fan? Here is a story Lynne reported about the ancient spiritual roots of themes celebrated in the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar.”

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