Teaching Self-Restraint to Sense-Enslaved Americans: Har Dayal's Eye-Opening Observations of the Intrinsic American Character

In this episode, Lala Har Dayal provides candid but truthful observations of the innate character of the American society in the early 20th Century. The essay is imbued with great historical value.
Teaching Self-Restraint to Sense-Enslaved Americans: Har Dayal's Eye-Opening Observations of the Intrinsic American Character


IN THIS EPISODE, LALA HAR DAYAL brings alive the profoundly selfless spiritual and social service that the Swamis inspired by Swami Vivekananda performed in America. Especially notable is his evocative sketch of Swami Trigunatita and the picture of the Shanti Ashrama in California.

Har Dayal simultaneously gives a frank and no-holds-barred assessment of the innate nature of the American people. This assessment is not only eye-opening but also holds a mirror for the Hindus of our own time who have migrated to the US in droves. Among other things, these observations are full of historical value.

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Passionate Yearning for Bharatavarsha

WHAT IS A SMALL HINDU TEMPLE? We have millions of them in India. Yes, dear reader, you have millions of them, you who bask in the sunshine of the per­petual Indian spring and see the lotus bloom and hear the kokila sing all around you without bestowing a moment’s thought on them. To you a lotus is but a lotus, but to us it is much more. Each of its petals represents to us the thousand little things which we have left behind, and which we shall never see again unless the unexpected happens. So my praise of the Hindu temple at San Francisco should not appear ex­aggerated to you. The other day I remarked to an American lady, “I never realised India’s worth till I left it for good.” And then I spoke of the unique opportunities for the highest spiritual development afforded by the climate and the customs of the people, who do not think of hauling a spiritual aspirant before the magistrate as a vagrant and vagabond.

The rush of emotions called up by the sight of the temple naturally subsided in the Vedantic atmosphere which permeated its interior, for does not the Vedanta teach us to curb our emotions and feelings? The building is adorned with full-size portraits of Paramahansa Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, executed by loving American disciples. The Swamis in charge deliver three lectures every Sunday, conduct Gita- classes, give yoga-lessons and publish a well-written little magazine called the “Voice of Freedom.” Some of their disciples learn Sanskrit and recite the Gita in the original. A few zealous Europeans have joined them as brahmacharins to devote themselves to the propaganda.

Trigunatita: The Swami who Epitomised his Name

Swami Trigunatita has obtained quite a good standing in local society, as he has been appointed Director of Indian Exhibits for the Panama Exhibi­tion to be held at San Francisco in 1915. The swamis have performed a remarkable feat of spiritual power in instituting a Shanti Ashrama, a retreat in the mountains of California, where some of their disciples retire for meditation and spiritual progress for one month every year.

We in India may not be struck with the significance of such a fact. But we do not know these restless noisy Americans, who are always hankering after some sensation. They have no inner life. They are as averse to meditation as to murder or mormonism. They must be drilled and disciplined to gain that mental equilibrium which even the noblest among them do not usually possess. We may as well tame a tiger or bind the wind than get an American to retire to the mountains for meditation! He cannot understand that the hidden sources of all true life lie far away from the senate, the market-place, the theatre, the stock-exchange and the church. And the Shanti Asrama, founded by the swamis here, is an eloquent index of their efficient propaganda. Here at last the Americans derive some real benefit from the Hindus. I shall quote from an account of the institution from the pen of an American Vedantist:

“Save for the tinkling of cowbells and the last low twittering of nestling birds, the spell of the evening silence was unbroken. The deeper hues of the western sky, above the purple shadows of the hills, announced the close of another day of peaceful medita­tion. Such hours of intimate communion with the Unseen were the happy portion of the thirty-five members of the Vedanta Society of San Francisco, who spent the month of June of the present year at the Shanti Ashrama of the Ramakrishna Mission of Calcutta, situated in the San Antone Valley in Santa- clara county, California.

A veritable pilgrimage it is to this secluded ‘Peace Retreat.’ Distant some fifty miles from the nearest accessible rail-road station,...the Ashrama is ideally located for the purpose to which it is devoted.

In the quietude of this wilderness, the stressful life of the city is forgotten....In a spot hallowed as it has been by the presence of those who have renounced the fleeting shadows of a worldly life, one’s spiritual per­ceptions are quickened and a deeper knowledge of life’s meaning is evoked. Three classes daily on the meditation platform in the higher Yoga-practices, lessons from the Bhagavad-Gita with questions and answers at the table following the two meals of the day, a ladies’ spiritual class, the different working parties of the gentlemen, and the Sanskrita classes were the events about which all the activities of the camp centred.

Thus passed the days at the Shanti Ashrama. Early rising, simplicity in diet, self-con­ trol, concentration, and watchfulness over the senses were observed by the students as a means of attaining that higher self-consciousness, which austerities in a place of retirement tend to promote.” (From the Voice of Freedom, August 1910.)

IT IS DIFFICULT TO BELIEVE that these words have been written by an American! The Shanti Ashrama, with its practical disci­pline of the daily life of these perplexed, shallow and sense-enslaved Americans according to the highest precepts of Hindu religious life, is the finest fruit of the Vedanta movement here. May it grow and prosper!

Wall on Shanti Ashrama, California
Wall on Shanti Ashrama, California

There are other facts which prove that the swamis take their work very seriously and that their pupils are not mere dilettanti in religious inquiry who take up new creeds as Parisian women adopt new fashions of dress every spring. A marriage has been celebrated in the Hindu temple, the bride and the bridegroom being both Americans. This regulation of social life by religion shows that the foundations of the new church are being laid with zeal and fore­sight. From being a mere philosophy, Vedanta will thus be converted into a living religion for these people. Another significant event was the celebration of the birth-anniversary of Paramahansa Ramakrishna on Match 20, when the audience fasted the whole day and remained in one posture for 15 hours during the service! This achievement is a surer token of the members love- and devotion than the amount of subscription collected by the society.

Civilising the Americans

For the Americans, it is really an achievement. These people go to church every Sunday after stuffing themselves with bacon and eggs in the morning, so that all the avenues of spiritual experience maybe completely closed when they listen to the sermon. It is a great tribute to the wisdom and moral power of the swamis that they have been able to teach even a few of these overfed self-complacent Americans the value of restraint and self-mortification as practised by earnest Hindus of all denominations. It is nothing short of a miracle to succeed in persuading an American audience to fast and sit still for 15 hours at a stretch!

To quote a few sentences from an account of the celebration contributed to the pages of the “Voice of Freedom” by Mr. Henry Fay Page, an American member of the Vedanta Society:

"On no other occasion of a public nature does devotion express itself so fervently as in the celebration of a spiritual hero, and it was in this spirit of reverent remembrance that the members and friends of the San Francisco Vedanta Society observed the birthday anniversary of Sri Rama Krishna Paramahansa, at the Hindu temple in San Francisco, California, on the 20th of March, 1910.

"Amid the fragrance of flowers and incense, a twenty-hours’ continuous service, beginning at six-o’clock on Sunday morning, was conducted by the teacher of the local society,-Swami Trigunatita, assisted by Swami Prakashananda, who delivered the morning and after­noon lectures. At the midnight hour, with all the impressiveness that thrills the heart throughout India, the Hindu form of worshipping the Supreme Lord and His manifestations' took place.

Thus, devotedly and fittingly, was the memory, nay, the living presence, of Sree Rama Krishna, honoured by those who have caught somewhat of the spirit of His disciples…To Western hearts, long yearning for that message which alone could assuage their thirst for Truth, came the childlike yet triumphant song of Rama Krishna:

"O Mother Divine! I want no honor from men,

I want no pleasure of the flesh.

Mother, I am without bhakti, without yoga; I am poor and friendless.

I want no one’s praises; only let my mind always dwell in Thy lotus feet.”

Thus do the Swamis slowly and silently work for the spiritual progress of these people. They are revered for their, holy lives, and their pupils are really devoted to them.

To be continued

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