Hindu Swamis in America in the Early 20th Century

In this episode, Lala Har Dayal gives an truly remarkable firsthand account of the Hindu Swamis who began trickling into America in the early 20th Century.
Hindu Swamis in America in the Early 20th Century


In the concluding part of this series, Lala Har Dayal gives us a rather brilliant portrait of Hindu Swamis of various sampradayas who began to flock to America in the wake of Swami Vivekananda’s triumphant visit there.

Read on!

“All that Glitters is not Gold“

I NOW COME TO THE LAST CLASS of persons of whom I have to speak—the swamis. At the outset I may remark that there are swamis and swamis. All that glitters is not gold. A few swamis here are downright humbugs, who make religion a mask for money­ making and worse things than money­ making. They have been seduced by the glamour of this civilisation in its worst aspects. They live an easy and comfortable life; free from the cares of the world and affect aristocratic ways in society. They are busy cheating credulous middle-aged women out of their dollars. There are some swamis of this type out here. They bring discredit on the Hindu people. But they carry on their predatory propaganda of spirituality without much noise, and do not achieve much success.

The swamis connected with the Vedanta Mission founded by Swami Vivekananda are almost all good and sincere men, who do much good to the American people. One or two of them may fall short of the ideal and I have heard many complaints against one member of the group. But there are black sheep in every fold.

Making due allowance for human frailty and the neces­sity of adaptation to Western methods and environments, I may say that the swamis present a very lofty type of life and deserve the success that they have achieved.

When Swami Vivekananda stood on the platform of the Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893 and evoked an outburst of applause by addressing his audience as “Sistersand Brothers of America,” he little dreamed that his work would be carried on after him by a devoted band of mission­aries.

The Profound Impact of Vedanta on America

The beneficial effects of his preach­ing are visible on every side. America is always on the alert for a lesson in religion from a Hindu. The cultured classes always imagine that every Hindu is a Yogi, or ought to be one. There is a keen and growing interest in Hindu thought. Many earnest inquirers wish to quench their thirst for the ideal at the fountain of Hindu philosophy.

I had hardly entered the premises of the Metaphysical Club at Boston, when a lady asked me if I could practise mental healing. Lectures on Karma are delivered even by American preachers who understand our theories very imperfectly. Theosophy is well repre­sented in this country, and there is a regu­lar Raja Yoga College at Point Loma in California under the direction of Mrs. Catherine Tingley. Many rich and educat­ed ladies affect to be enamoured of the Hindu religion and burn incense before statues of Buddha placed in their drawing-rooms for purposes of decoration.

Several Ameri­can ladies have even adopted Hindu names and dedicated themselves to the Vedantic propaganda. Prominent among them is Sister Deva-mata, a cultured and earnest lady, who has learned the Vedanta for two years in India and has now returned to this country to preach it as a holy sister. Her knowledge of our systems of thought is really creditable to her, and it gave me great pleasure to meet her and listen to her lecture on “Breathing exercises” and “The Vedanta as a universal religion.”

THE WORK OF THE SWAMIS has resulted in the general diffusion of Hindu ideas among a section of the upper classes, and has given Hindus the thoroughly deserved reputation of “a nation of philosophers.”

A Hindu’s nationality is a passport to social intercourse in these classes, and the feeling of cordiality with which he is received deepens into one one of homage and admiration if the personality of the individual is remarkable.

A friend of mine has lectured on Indian politics and religion in the remote and inaccessible tracts of Arizona and Southern Mexico, as he was tramping on foot. He was heard with the greatest respect everywhere. The Americans are intellectually wide awake and inquisitive. They want to know everything about India, and India exerts a peculiar fascination on them as a land of mystery and romance, the abode of snakes, palmists, yogis, mahatmas, and elephants.

All this curiosity about India is satisfied by the Vedantic Swamis, who have gathered bands of devoted disciples in different towns. There are flourishing Vedanta centres at Boston, New York, Washington, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The society at San Francisco is worthy of special notice, as it possesses a temple of its own, “the only Hindu temple in the Western world,” as the managers take care, to declare in their leaflets. The success of this society is due to the energy and character of Swami Trigunatita and Swami Prakashananda, both of whom are men of genuine spirituality and enthusiasm. The temple is a beautiful - structure, built in Hindu style, which made me homesick and thought that this was the only Hindu temple that I should be able to see from this time forward.

Visions of Hardwar and Rishikesh floated before my tear-dimmed eyes, and transported me in imagination to those haunts of peace and meditation, which I had seen only to quit them for ever. I still pine for the sacred breath of their balmy air and the thought-inducing, care-allaying and soul-uplifting atmosphere of calm solitude that pervades every corner of that holy region. And I am trying to find a similar spot in the West.

On the gay boulevards of Paris, the bejewelled mistress of the world, and by the beetling crags of the Alps, the mimic-Himalayas of Europe, on the sunny plains of lovely Italia and the snow-covered beach of the Atlantic that bathes the shores of New England, I have always turned towards the dream of my love, that sacred tapovan and cradle of Hindu spirituality, where all Hindu aspirants, from Kapila to Swami Ram Tirtha, have gone to get wisdom and insight by communing with Nature and their own hearts—a veritable training-ground of the spiritual giants of India.

But here in the West, it is all noise and show and conventionality. The world is too much with us.

To be continued

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