In 1948 when I arrived in Southern California to begin my new life, I cast about to find out what to do with myself. I was unemployed, short of money, and very anxious about my future. I didn't want to start all over again a business career, and yet I wasn't sure that I was ready to ask to become a probationer at the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Swami Prabhavananda wisely suggested that I complete my doctor's degree, toward which I already had some credits, thus using my time in a positive way while trying to get my bearings.
So I enrolled at the University of Southern California and in a year or two gained my doctorate. I wanted to choose a subject for my thesis acceptable to the Education Department in which I was enrolled, while at the same time expanding my study of my new-found enthusiasm, Vedanta. So I proposed as the subject of my research the educational techniques of the Indian "guru". How times have changed! The term "guru" was unfamiliar to most of the members of my doctoral committee of professors. But they accepted my proposal, and by June, 1951, the three-hundred-page thesis had been written and accepted: "The Guru Principle in Indian Education".
It is not a very remarkable work. It recounted the guruship activities of Swami Brahmananda and others, comparing and contrasting such with the practices of western educators and contemporary therapists. The conclusion was that "introjection" is the secret of the guru-disciple process. By identifying with a desired quality in the preceptor the student somehow succeeds in exhibiting the same quality in himself.
Well, a great many years have passed since 1951 and I have had more than sufficient opportunities to reflect upon the guru concept, as will be seen from the pages which follow. Not in theory but in vivid operation. I now reject the conclusion I came to in my thesis, for I know now that those qualities evoked by the guru are already in the disciple, though latent. The preceptor, as Vivekananda said, is a gardener, who pulls the weeds away, cultivates the soil, adds the fertilizer of his own example and the water of his love. But the plant grows as a result of its own innate force.
Hence the Indian saying: "Wonderful is the disciple and wonderful is the teacher."
Another Indian proverb proclaims that everyone gets the kind of guru he deserves. I would modify this idea slightly to say that we go from guru to guru in ascending order as our learning grows and our needs advance. Or that we are vouchsafed various "upagurus" — noble examples — from whom we can extract lessons. When we are young, an interesting teacher, an athlete, an artist, a singing or acting personality may inspire admiration and emulation. The admired person may function as a guru, or upaguru, without his being aware of it. Edna St. Vincent Millay was a splendid beginning guru for me. As we perfect our talents or manifest our tendencies we seek exemplars possessing qualities of ascending value. And as our proficiency augments we become increasingly capable of recognizing proficiency in others and profiting from it. Thus Vivekananda's astonishing remark at the end of his life: "Only another Vivekananda could appreciate what this Vivekananda has done." In an aware, developing person the process continues indefinitely, because the ultimate guru is God. As a devotee grows more Godlike he appreciates the Divine more and more and sees himself and all other creatures as God's infinite manifestations. Curiously, we look outside, and look and look, in order, eventually, to get back to ourselves, but a very different ourselves. Aiding and abetting this process is the guru principle.
I could list a number of individuals from whom I have learned. I salute, with love and appreciation, each of them. Some have given me beautiful experiences, some bitter; most a mixture of the two. But each influence was necessary to make of me a devotee and produce the person I have become.
In amour I was well instructed, but as I have indicated, some built-in discrimination cautioned: "This is not enough." One couldn't enjoy the apple for the worm one knew would eventually emerge.
I was to have a great spiritual guru and several instructive upagurus, as later pages of this book will demonstrate. But before that was to be, I had to be involved during most of the Chicago years with a superlative worldly guru. From him I learned the attraction of, and the necessity to abandon, the second component of Ramakrishna's construct of the human psyche: Greed.
I don't know whether I can write an adequate description of Lyle Spencer. Some who read these pages will remember him, for he became a prominent figure in education and business. Only his early death prevented Lyle from becoming a truly national personality. He had at any rate by the end of his life become extremely powerful and wealthy. The "New York Times" devoted two columns to his obituary, and the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) brought out a memorial booklet, after Lyle's death, commemorating his achievements.
I saw Lyle at first as an angel of light, but later he became for me, I fear, the Tempter. When our association began in 1941 I was thrilled by the vista Lyle opened up for me — interesting "new frontier" work and a chance to serve humanity. Seven years later, when leaving him, I had to keep Mephistopheles in mind in order to steel myself to make the break. Our association was a replay of Citizen Kane", with Lyle taking Orson Wells's part and me Joseph Cotton's.
In 1939 Lyle and a friend named Robert Burns formed in Chicago a publishing company called Social Science Research Associates, later called simply Science Research Associates or SRA. "Time" magazine wrote up the fledgling company in 1940. I joined SRA on January 1, 1942, and was there till I left for Los Angeles in May of 1948. What I learned from Lyle was the excitement of having power — how to get it, how to extend it, how to enjoy it. In short, the components of Greed. This is something everyone ought to learn, so that he can find out that the possession of power doesn't solve any of the ultimate problems of life, indeed only aggravates them.
Lyle was two years older that I and of a wider cultural background. He'd already gained an M.A. degree, had been an international debater, had been named Young Man of the Year by the International Chamber of Commerce, and had traveled widely. His father was a university professor, but there had been a divorce and his mother had married a second time, to an astute businessman who had become a millionaire.
But the business mentality, and business success, were elements which, when we became acquainted in1941, Lyle despised. Lyle's credo was that such old values were finished; they only produced human problems. A new way was needed, a scientific way, led by trained men of good will. Social scientists would study human beings, arrange human goals, and ordain means by which man could progress toward such goals in a satisfactory manner. We would be leaders in the new profession of human engineering.
Of course this call appealed to me, as I considered myself to be a man of good will ready to work for human betterment. Much of our publishing activity was devoted to preparing and bringing out psychological tests, the idea being that by learning enough about the individual through evaluating him, educators could guide him to vocational and personal choices which accommodated his individual preferences and pointed him toward a satisfying life. I felt with Lyle that all human variables could one day be measured and that personal and interpersonal problems, as a consequence, could be solved. Whether Lyle actually believed this, I never knew. He often spoke of an élite of men of good will attaining power and adjusting, for their own good, individuals of lesser capacity. We were, of course, among the élite, who would oversee the adjusting. As I look back on this notion now I see how close it was to fascist thinking.
A siren song which only someone in his twenties, and an idealist, would listen to and heed. But it did sound plausible, and Lyle was a born charmer. Well, I went along with the proposition. Throughout the 1940's I played the social scientist and ran SRA. I wrote articles, edited books, made speeches, attended conventions, preaching the gospel of human adjustment through research in the social sciences. Lyle was doing somewhat the same work in relation to servicemen as a lieutenant-colonel in the U.S. Army, frequently overseas.
What I was actually doing was learning how to exert power, use others, push ahead, get rich, despise lesser men, and enjoy the fruits of greed; and for some years I enjoyed doing this. But at times I would wonder what was happening to me. I was saving others but myself I could not save. We "élite" were all like that. I finally woke up to the fact that I was nothing but a hypocrite. I preached adjustment and was not adjusted myself. My real goal was preeminence.
I don't know what Lyle really felt toward me besides a certain gratitude for having brought SRA intact through the War. When I announced my departure to, as I cornily phrased it, go forth and seek my soul, he proffered interest, even a cooperative spirit. Of course he figured I'd soon be back, chastened and more manageable. One of Lyle's favorite expressions was: "Never oppose people; take them into camp." Translated, this means: seduce your opponent. Yet I suspect that there was some wistfulness on his part, some feeling that maybe I was "onto something" promising. Lyle was a queer mixture of idealism and cynicism. His paramount quality was an exorable thrust for supremacy. He played at it like a game. He died owning an estate on the North Shore of Chicago, where he bred pure-blooded horses, a symbolic mark of having arrived which he would have despised earlier.
I learned thus many negative lessons from Lyle. But I learned one positive lesson from him, too, which has served me ever since the Chicago days. During the war a system of priorities was put into operation designed to control the use by the public of the rails and airlines, the idea being to insure those persons a place who were traveling on official business. To be sure of getting somewhere thus you had to possess a "priority" issued by the appropriate government agency. As I was engaged in official war tasks I could usually obtain a priority to travel. However on one occasion when I had to go from Chicago to San Francisco I could obtain a priority for a seat only as far as Kansas City, about one-third of the way. I hesitated, fearing that I might be stranded for days in Kansas City, before being able to continue on to the West Coast. Lyle's advice was: "Take the priority you can get. If you stay in Chicago, waiting for a clearance straight to San Francisco, you may never get through. Getting to Kansas City will open the way to the rest of the trip." I followed his advice and found that what he proposed was true. After a short wait in Kansas City I found a place on an on-going plane. The lesson being, make a start even if the conclusion is not clear in advance. Making a start guarantees a successful conclusion far more surely than waiting until the whole route is clear.
We met once more, in 1961, when I stopped in Chicago on a farewell visit to old scenes before taking sannyas. After touring the new, impressive SRA premises, we had dinner together at a famous restaurant on the Near North Side. I had been a monastic probationer for ten years and in Lyle's eyes had wasted my time and my talent. "You could have become an internationally renowned editor," was his reproach. Lyle had become a figure of power, was a director on many boards, had, through shrew professional coups, built SRA into a big concern so that the value of its stock had doubled and doubled and split many times over. Soon SRA was to be amalgamated as a division of the fabulously successful International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM. Two or three marriages and divorces, many sessions at the Menninger psychiatric clinic just to see how psychoanalysis worked — during dinner he related all that he had done. Yes, I was impressed when I thought of what might have been if I'd stayed with him. And at the same time, thankful that I hadn't, and terribly sad for him.
The supreme insult on that occasion — or was it an act of affection? — came when Lyle offered to reinstall me as a director of SRA if I would come back into the fold. Here is how I recorded the meeting in my diary a day later:
April 25, 1961. Riverside Manor, Lansing, Michigan.
By jet to Chicago. Then to the Drake. I covered on foot all the places on the Near North Side I used to know. Perhaps my big event was dinner with Lyle, which broke into an open quarrel. He considers me rigid, and meditation self-hypnosis. It started when he came back to the old invitation to join SRA again. "I resent that and consider it an insulting suggestion," I said. "Just as if I were to tell you that if SRA fails I've always got a spare bedroom you can have at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood."
"Your flaring up proves you are not sure," he shot back.
"And your saying that makes it clear that you're a very amateur social scientist," was my nasty rejoinder.
Driving back to my hotel, we were both silent. I felt desolated that my attempt at rapprochement had worked out so badly. That Lyle was furious at having been rebuffed was clear when we parted. "Well, since employment matters were discussed," he said, "I at least have the satisfaction of being able to charge this dinner off on my tax return as a business expense."
I guess we were more attached to each other than we realized.
In the chapel at Gretz, from 1966 onwards, I prayed for Lyle every morning — that I might have no ill will toward him, or him toward me, that he might find peace, reminding myself that I was thankful to him for all he had taught me and all that that teaching had allowed me to reject. This practice I continued, and soon I began to feel a renewed affection for him and desire, now that he had undoubtedly succeeded in what he had wanted to do, as I was hoping to succeed in my quest, that we might reestablish our friendship. Around 1970 I wrote to him along these lines — and received a letter from the new President of SRA telling me that Lyle had died two years before. Yes, lingeringly from cancer at fifty-seven. Oh no!
I also met Paramahamsa Yogananda, founder and head of the Self-Realization Fellowship.
Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles in 1948 I went to the "Los Angeles Times" to inquire, not very wholeheartedly, into job possibilities. There I met Bill Moses, the newspaper's religious editor. We liked each other at once, and I proposed two stories for him as possible illustrated Sunday features. One was a reportage on the Trabuco Monastery, just then being taken over by the Vedanta Society of Southern California. Bill did a beautiful illustrated article, which pleased Swami Prabhavananda and helped further his regard for me. The other suggestion concerned SRF, known to many because of the success of Yogananda's book, The Autobiography of a Yogi". An appointment was made for Bill and me to interview Yogananda at his Mount Washington headquarters. I recall that it was a Saturday. We were invited to come for lunch, a lunch which, counting the entertainment which followed the eating and the talk, was to go on till four o'clock in the afternoon.
On arriving we passed through the offices, which contained about thirty desks — a big organization even then, with worldwide branches and thousands inscribed in correspondence courses. I noticed that every desk had on it a framed portrait of the Leader.
We were conducted to the Paramahamsa's top floor apartment. I had known him from the frequently seen publicity photo, with long hair and an unmistakable resemblance to Jesus. In the flesh he seemed older (he would then have been in his mid-fifties) and the hair was considerably less abundant.
During lunch, which consisted of egg curry and vegetarian items, Yogananda spoke constantly about himself, the size of the organization, the number of his adepts, the initiations he gave for various grades of attainment, his own struggles in building up the work. I remarked that I had passed an SRF restaurant somewhere down the Coast which advertised mushroomburgers. "Yes, it is I who invented the mushroomburger," he replied proudly, giving a history of how this meat substitute item had been conceived and popularized.
As this very long interview, together with the lunch, came to an end, Bill and I prepared to take our leave.
"Oh, no. You've only heard about my work, now you will see some of it." Space was made and a scene ensued that made me think of life in the court of some oriental potentate. The entertainment was given by about a dozen or twenty adolescent and pre-adolescent boys, barefooted and wearing gym outfits. They proceeded to do a series of yoga postures such as Bill and I had never seen before. The Paramahamsa proudly watched his performers, commented on the exercises, explaining the value of each. At one point some of the advanced students thrust needles through cheeks and tongue and removed them without drawing blood.
The whole thing struck me very unpleasantly. Was this something I should have to accept in becoming an adept of Indian religion? I asked myself. I hoped not. What we had witnessed struck me as intensely unaesthetic and moreover carrying with it an unmistakable odor of eroticism.
It was obvious that this was not to be my way, nor the Paramahamsa my spiritual guide. Later, when I gave an account of that luncheon to Swami Prabhavananda (who had known Yogananda since their younger days in Bengal) he looked quite grim. "Could it be said, Swami," I asked, in order to draw him out, "that one might classify Ramakrishna Vedanta as the Episcopalianism of Indian religious thought and the SRF people as its Holy Rollers?" Swami just looked at me disgusted.
Paramahamsa Yogananda died suddenly at a banquet honoring the Indian Ambassador in Los Angeles on March 7, 1952. It was said that his body did not become corrupted; and there were plans to enshrine it on SRF grounds for future viewing; but this plan was rejected by the Los Angeles Health Department. It is now, like those of so many other former Los Angeles residents, buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Cemetery.
I now propose to talk about Swami Prabhavananda, whose disciple I became early in the morning of Kali Puja, November 9, 195O; about my relations with him; and about how my character changed during our sixteen years together.
I shall go over some of the same ground that Christopher Isherwood covers in his My Guru and his Disciple; for Chris and I are brother disciples. Anyone reading Isherwood's book will see how completely he accepted the Hindu formula: The guru is God. In a personal testimony he wrote for my book What Vedanta Means to Me, published in 1959, Isherwood said: "What does Vedanta mean to me? Guru and mantram." In his My Guru and his Disciple(1980) the mantra is mentioned less; the guru has become nearly everything. For example, at the end of My Guru and his Disciple Isherwood poses the question: "Now that your Swami is dead, what are you left with?" and answers the question by saying: "I am left with Swami".
Most of Swami Prabhavananda's disciples regarded and regard their guru in the same fashion as Isherwood. In his last days Prabhavananda was revered as almost a living god, became an object of intense adoration. The daily audience he gave, a halting walk around the temple compound, was attended by scores of devotees. Today, more than a dozen years after his death, the attitude at the Hollywood center is one of awe that such a perfect master should have dwelt among man. The present membership of the Vedanta Society of Southern California is made up of two classes: those who knew the master and those who arrived too late to have enjoyed that privilege. A sect could easily have formed there organized around the perpetuation of the late leader's memory — as has occurred at Pondicherry and Tiruvanamalai — had not the Ramakrishna Order policy of continuation been adhered to. A new head was sent, the work continues, and profound respect for Prabhavananda, but no cultish celebration of him, is the attitude which prevails.
I never felt I dared to evaluate Swami Prabhavananda's spiritual attainments. That he was an ardent devotee of God there can be no doubt. He possessed great charisma, intense charm, and a visible intensity of conviction. Sometimes he was dazzlingly beautiful. Thus he transmitted to others the idea that the search for God, that spiritual life, could be the only important human concern. On puja days particularly, especially on the day when we celebrated Swami Brahmananda's (Maharaj's) birthday, Swami was visibly elated and bursting with love and spiritual power. Of course we disciples discussed the question of whether he had attained samadhi. He often implied that he had, but never came right out and said so. Only once I heard him respond to the question directly. A bumptious young man asked Prabhavananda if he had achieved realization. Swami replied sharply: "I am not a blind man."
Even those devotees originally skeptical fell in with the general adoration of Swami Prabhavananda as a great holy man. Here is a typical case. One of them told me that for years she had not fully accepted him, although initiated by him, and had been the object of very rough treatment from him, until all of a sudden "everything had cleared up" and she realized that the opposition she had felt and the poor relations it had induced, had been the agencies through which unhelpful tendencies in herself had been "sandpapered away". A miraculous new point of view had replaced the old dubiousness. Now she had gained absolute faith in her guru.
I envy conviction of such intensity. But it did not rise easily in me, and no effort to induce it had any effect. Nevertheless, much that I know about spiritual life, much that went into the making of the devotee that I am trying to become, I learned from Swami Prabhavananda.
We may say, then, that what follows complements what Isherwood has written in My Guru and his Disciple and adds to the picture he has given us of this very special person, and the time and place where he toiled so long and so enthusiastically to turn everyday Americans into "men and women of God".
In thinking about Swami Prabhavananda we have to remember that he came from a culture very different from that in which were reared most of his disciples. (I visited Swami Prabhavananda's birthplace near Bankura in Bengal in 1952 and again in 1964 and met his brothers and other members of his family.) He was born only seven years after the death of Sri Ramakrishna in an India that had not yet found its way, for better or for worse, into the modern world; a nineteenth century colony of Great Britain.
To say that Swami was an Indian is to say much, and to say that he was a Bengali is to say even more. The Indian is the bearer of attitudes developed far in the past: a strong sense of family (clan) and loyalty to it; respect for a paternalistic social hierarchy and acceptance of one's place in it; a kind of pantheistic feeling about all life — that it vibrates with spirit; an idealization of sacrifice and asceticism. Added to this is an intense pride in being descended from an old race possessing in Sanskrit a superior language and literature; and a feeling of defensiveness concerning India's relatively inferior position in the world. With the result that there is an ambivalence about the ancient values which has induced a peculiar hiatus in the cultural development of the modern Indian. (V.S. Naipaul has written much about the contradictions in the Indian character.)
All this, of course, is in the Bengali, and much more. And Swami was a Bengali of Bengalis, as he himself often stated. Sri Ramakrishna took birth in Bengal, and most of Ramakrishna's disciples were Bengalis. Rabindranath Tagore was a Bengali; so was Sri Aurobindo. Since the 1800's Bengalis have been the most enterprising, creative, and fiery of Indians; and it was because of this that the capital of India, originally at Calcutta, was removed to Delhi. The British simply felt unsafe and not in control in Bengal. Today Bengal's state government is communist.
How shall I describe the Bengali temperament? Latin, Italian, emotional, passionate. Devoid of sham and contemptuous of surface respectability. Impatient of staid and stiff people, who the Bengali sees as heartless and calculating. Capable of great generosity and charm, the Bengali is also given to suspicion and intramural squabbling. There is a popular saying in India: "Wherever there are Bengalis there will be quarrels." Swami Vivekananda often scolded his countrymen for their jealousy of each other. Prabhavananda confessed that jealousy was one of his great defects. Were I so inclined, I could relate several instances of this; but what purpose would that serve? The fact was there, obvious to us all. This weak point also troubled and troubles me in my effort to think of my guru as a perfect being.
Indians from other parts of India find Bengalis hard to understand and live with. And the Bengali seems to find himself most truly at home with his own. After a couple of years of being assisted by a South Indian swami, Swami Prabhavananda announced at the time of that swami's departure for a new post, "I shall insist that his replacement be a Bengali." And he was. After taking sannyas in 1964 I made a month's pilgrimage to South India with a half-dozen other swamis, all Bengalis. When we finally reached Trivandrum which, although located in the state of Kerala in South India, had a Bengali swami in charge and a Bengali atmosphere, one of our group remarked: "Oh, what a relief to get back to one s own country again!"
Of course in his many years in the West, Swami Prabhavananda became urbane and cosmopolitan. He even became a naturalized American citizen. But when the chips were down he followed his own instincts, and these were unerringly Indian, Bengali.
So it is natural that when Swami Prabhavananda began his work in Hollywood in about 1930 it came to be organized according to the model Swami knew best, the family, or joint family. The great joint family where the generations live together, everyone on top of everyone else, and there is no privacy and there are no secrets. Everything out in the open, while everyone speaks his mind. Visitors or other relatives are always welcome, as a few more or less are of no importance and make things more exciting.
In the small bungalow at 1946 Ivar Avenue, Hollywood, Swami became the paterfamilias, Sister Lalita (Mrs. Carrie Mead Wychoff who had been hostess to Swami Vivekananda in South Pasadena in 1900) was given the role of the head's revered mother, a surrogate for Prabhavananda's own mother in far-away Bankura, for whom he maintained an intense affection. Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Brahmananda were installed as family deities; the latter, also called Maharaj, was Swami's guru, thus was felt to be living and close; the family was under his special protection. Visiting swamis were received as elder brothers, subject to elaborate courtesies (especially tributes from the kitchen); or younger brothers, to be joked with and given advice; or, in one or two cases, brothers-in-law, subject to suspicion and quarrels.
And all the rest of us, whatever our age and whichever our sex, became the children, clustering, literally, around Father's knees. (George Fitts, later Swami Krishnananda, was only ten years younger than Swami Prabhavananda, but Swami always referred to him, even when he himself was eighty and the disciple seventy, as "that boy".)
In the opening chapters of My Guru and his Disciple Isherwood describes the Prabhavananda family as he had known it as a member in the early 1940's. "Oh Prema," Chris used to muse, when recalling those years, "what a madhouse it all was, and yet how strangely comforting." Chris's success with Prabhavananda was, I suspect, that the father found this brilliant son in some ways an image of himself, for in their emotional natures — honesty, ardor, and faith — they were similar. Chris's role was favorite son, and it was a disappointment to Swami, as Chris has stated, that somehow it could not be possible for Chris to take a dominant place in the succession.
My role at first was young prodigy, but this gradually changed when it became clear that I was not capable of that total submission which Swami preferred; he didn't feel comfortable with any disciple in whom that quality was lacking. (I heard him refer to one of our number in the following terms: "I can do anything I want with her: she is my disciple.") Hence as time went on Swami appeared to develop a certain wariness toward me which turned finally into opposition. Once he complained, "Nobody ever knows what you might do." And on another occasion said: "You are a very dangerous person."
The model that I arrived with, when I joined the household, was that of the business organization.
I have been a loner from the cradle onwards, possessed of what has been called a vast pride. Probably pride is the right word, or reserve, for the quality manifested itself in self-sufficiency and a horror of being beholden to anybody for anything. If people liked me and were nice to me, well and good. If not, who cared? Actually I cared a great deal but could never bring myself to be the suitor. I hated surprises and improvisations, spontaneous tentatives. I was consequently always considered cold. The easy intimacies many people seem to enjoy were largely unknown to me. I often reflected on how much I didn't know, because I could never bring myself to ask about it. Such traits of personality don't make it easy for a person to become a model disciple, especially in a Bengali household.
The reader will readily diagnose my trouble as not having come to terms with myself. And he may well be right. But with some people this is a process which cannot be hurried. It did occur, as we shall see — indeed, this transformation is what this whole book is about — but very slowly. Thus the significance of the Indian saying: "Nothing happens except at the right time." Regrettable, perhaps, but true.
Out of compensation (and astrologers might say because I was born under the sign of Leo) I became a person who made things go. I was never a natural, popular leader, but I was a good organizer — conscientious, a hard worker, a lover of order. I have seen myself since infancy standing up against the world's natural tendency to resolve itself into chaos.
I had little family sense, since mine was the western kind in which the four members maintained seemly distances the one from the other.
When I moved in at 1946 Ivar Avenue — soon to be renamed Vedanta Place as a result of the Hollywood Freeway's leaving us only a tiny tag-end of Ivar Avenue — straight from the business world and executive chair, the atmosphere in the Prabhavananda household was still very much as Isherwood describes it. Meals were taken irregularly by the inmates; the women wore dressing gowns sometimes till midday; there was no such thing as an office with office hours; the telephone often went unanswered and the mail undistributed; no one hesitated to express his temperament. One of the members had organized his room for the production of gourmet meals, accompanied by choice wines which he drew from a supply he had stocked in the Center's basement.
My parents, who had by then moved to California, were horrified by my interest in Vedanta and my apparent intention to order my life according to its teachings. They never wanted to meet Swami Prabhavananda but finally attended on one occasion, in response to my insistence, one of his lectures. Their sole reaction was that they found him hard to understand (because of his Indian accent) and rather dark (skin color being associated in the minds of most Americans at that time with social acceptability). On another occasion my parents came to visit me in my room. They were greeted by one of the women inmates wearing a frilly black peignoir, who conducted them to my door, just outside of which hung a life-size photo of a yogi seated in lotus posture practically nude. (It was Swami Turiyananda. Swami Krishnananda had a passion for having great blownups made of photos of holy people and hanging them on the walls wherever there was space.) It must be remembered that I am referring to the 1950's, before much light from the East had dawned in America. This was the monastery I had come to live in, the retreat from the world my reading of Vedanta literature had inspired me to seek. Naturally my parents were offended.
Yes, I had left the world to seek monastic order and tranquility. Movie scenes of silent monks, clad in well-cut robes, moving through architecturally attractive cloisters — that's what I thought I had come to participate in. The "holy mess" I found was upsetting and would, I feared, force me to reconsider my decision. I questioned Swami Prabhavananda about this. He replied: "I keep hands off. I trust my disciples completely. Everyone is free to act as he thinks best. But remember, I also keep watch. If I see someone getting too far out of line, I pounce.' Sometimes I concluded that Swami felt that this surface confusion brought out the best in us; it forced us to break down our inhibitions and false respectability and offered us opportunities to discipline not only ourselves but each other — saving him that work! Sometimes I concluded that Swami didn't even notice the disorder. Who knows what went on in Swami's mind as he puffed cigarettes (he later quit) and looked on at temperamental clashes imperturbably? More than once he said with a deep sigh: "Ah, Prema, what patience it takes!"
Swami Prabhavananda taught me respect for eminence in others and for holiness. This was something that as a brash American I'd never thought much about, or learned. Notions of the Sacred and humbling oneself were out of countenance with my previous experience, as undemocratic and demeaning. Incidents such as the first scolding I got from Prabhavananda, related in Chapter One, came regularly and began to batter my self-assurance.
I recall many lessons. One happened like this. Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was then Vice President of India. He was in Los Angeles, and Swami Prabhavananda had invited him for luncheon. Before his arrival Swami told me, "At the end of the meal I wish to present Radhakrishnan with a copy of my translation of the Bhagavad-Gita. Get a copy, which I shall now inscribe to him, and bring it to me when lunch is over." The great man came as expected, his official Cadillac flanked by two motorcycle police. (Yes, only two; this was in the old days before the current terrorism.) All went well. As the meal seemed to be terminating and the conversation lagging I marched up with the copy of the Gita. But Swami's attention was turned elsewhere and he didn't take the book from me. Not knowing what to do, I bent down and placed the Gita on the floor where he could reach it easily when needed, and retired.
"Oh," he cried, reached down for the book, snatched it up, jumped from his chair, and placed the volume on the mantlepiece behind him.
What had I done wrong? After the departure of our guest I was told. "Scriptures are to be respected. Don't ever do such a thing as putting a holy book or other such object next to anybody's feet." This was the lesson, and I got it. But after a bit of reflection I couldn't resist teasing Swami.
"But holy mens' feet are holy," I demurred.
"No, no, no! We are the dust of the dust of the feet of holy men!" Disgustedly: "You don't understand anything."
In 1949 when Gerald Heard's Trabuco College was turned over to the Vedanta Society and became the Center's monastery, an altar was erected in the up to then bare meditation hall and daily worship instituted. Naturally special vessels for the altar, in which to serve food offerings, had to be procured — several plates and bowls and a goblet or two. Swami Prabhavananda told one of the brahmacharis to purchase what was necessary.
This brahmachari was what we in French would be called the économe, hence went about his assignment seriously. He had noticed that one of the stores in nearby Santa Ana was having a sale on tableware. He went there and purchased the necessary items at greatly reduced prices.
When the brahmachari brought these purchases back to Trabuco, explaining with satisfaction, "I got the whole setup for next to nothing," Swami Prabhavananda exploded. "What do you mean, economizing on the Lord! We give him the best, the best. Throw away all the stuff you have bought; put it in the garbage can. And go out and buy it all in silver!" An exaggeration, of course.
For Swami Prabhavananda was very practical in business matters. He understood finance and handled the Center's money affairs shrewdly. He had great faith in the stable value of property and was always glad to add to the Center's real estate holdings. He was against disposing of any land once acquired. "Remember," he said once, when I wanted to sell a bothersome building, "the Center will go on after we have departed. Unborn future residents have their rights too. You have no right to dispose of something which might be useful to them."
Another practical lesson I learned from him: "If you start something, finish it. Even if you've lost interest in it, finish it. Otherwise your mind will become fickle."
Gradually I began to feel that I was mastering Indian practices concerning purity and proper veneration for holy things. One day the news came that a certain devotee was dying and had asked to see his guru. Swami called me to him: "Get a little Ganges water from the shrine and drive me to D's house." (According to Hindu practice it is customary to give a sip of Ganges water to the dying.) I went to my room, looked about wildly for some container which would be deign to transport holy water in, finally settling on a small flacon which contained aspirin. Emptying out the aspirins, I thoroughly cleaned the bottle with hot water and soap inside an out. On the way to the devotee's house I proudly recounted my pious action to Swami, to which he replied, "Idiot, don't you know that Ganges water itself purifies everything?"
Once I reproached Prabhavananda on account of the, to me, unseeming behavior of one of his old-time disciples. "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," was his laconic response. That silenced me. And once or twice I raised questions among my colleagues as to whether they thought our way of life was appropriate. I was told with some heat: "This is a family. We are not a bunch of calculating machines. We are members of a family."
I would be unjust to imply that disorder is all that there was. If so, how could such persons as Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, the playwright John van Druten, King Vidor, the famous movie director, Somerset Maugham, and ever so many other persons of substance have been attracted? No, the Hollywood center was also a wonderful place, and sometimes in Swami's presence, when he talked of spiritual matters, or sitting before the altar in our little chapel, I felt happy and in my right place.
Swami was an example to us by regularly appearing in the chapel at meditation hours, morning and evening. We were expected to be present too. If someone did not appear for two or three times, he grew visibly worried. "I suppose you are too busy to meditate," he would remark sarcastically, "like Lady Bateman".
This was one of Swami Prabhavananda's favorite stories. Lady Bateman lived usually in Monte Carlo. During the War however this Marion Bateman, the rich widow of an English baron, and friend of Somerset Maugham, had found refuge in Southern California. She occasionally visited the Center as she found Prabhavananda charming. Once when she confronted Prabhavananda with some problem, Swami, as he did in such cases, recommended meditation.
"Meditate?" she had replied. "But Swami, when? I awake at ten, then the masseuse comes, and after her the coiffeur. Lunch doesn't finish before two-thirty or three. A bit of shopping and a look at an art gallery. Perhaps cocktails at someone's home. Dressing for dinner takes a long time. After dinner to the casino or to a party, and home very late. Now tell me, Swami, how am I ever to find the time to meditate?"
It was inevitable that I, being I, should try to take hold of the situation and, according to my lights, straighten it out — that is to say, make it more businesslike. I visualized the Center as functioning systematically, everyone knowing his job and doing it efficiently, according to an impersonal organization chart. So, no surprises. I thought of this as my mission, my form of karma yoga, and I worked at this task for the next dozen years or so. Schedules were organized and more or less followed, work was planned and supervised, publications were issued in good form and on time, direct and mailorder book sales were expanded, finances were strengthened. I felt that I was serving my guru in a way which pleased him, and he did go along with the reforms to a certain extent, although perhaps less whole-heartedly than I chose to believe.
The joint family, the business organization. At the same time a third model insinuated itself, or tried to insinuate itself, into our community — the personality cult.
In a situation where the leader is also the guru, and the guru encourages disciples, for their own good, to submit themselves to him, all elements are present for the development of the cult of the leader. Human affection does not easily distinguish between personality and principle. The leader may not wish to be turned into a cult figure, but circumstances may force this role upon him. In all truth, being elevated to godling renders his task easier. And those who render the leader extreme homage benefit equally from the arrangement, as they become members of an élite, whose privileges include influence over the leader and a certain power in the ordering of the center's affairs. I do not need to discourse much on this subject, as everyone is aware, from the publicity given them in the press and television, of how frequently personality cults have affected events in church, political, and professional organizations.
Insofar as religious organizations go, the formation of the cult of the leader is, because of their natural qualities of devotion and loyalty, the special province of women; they gain a sense of security from such an arrangement which gives them weapons against the natural independence, insouciance, and superior strength of men, always feared as rivals.
The disadvantages in allowing a personality cult to develop are these: the élite tends to make the leader their prisoner and will try to substitute their values for his. Upward mobility by those not in the élite will be blocked. Suggested reforms from outside authority or from within the organization can be sabotaged. And most serious of all, at the death of the leader the organization may fall apart, producing disasters for some who have given the leader their all.
To prevent the formation of personality cults no head of center in India is allowed to initiate, and heads of centers are frequently shifted. Where the leader is the guru, as in all western centers, only the good sense of the leader and self-discipline on the part of the disciples can keep the formation of the personality cult from developing to unhelpful levels.
Prabhavananda recognized all the dangers inherent in this pattern and would sometimes talk to us about it. Often he tried in the most violent fashion to break the circle around him, crying out against those who would manipulate him. "Get out! You don't understand anything about spiritual life," I once heard him shout. While to one of the nuns who happened to be wealthy and used her money in tactful ways for Swami's comfort and to sustain objectives which seemed significant to her, he said: "Give your money away. Throw it all away. I don't want anything from you. You don't have the least idea what renunciation means." But he felt compatible with women, sympathized with their problems, responded to their confidences, so that a sort of unspoken stalemate was the order of the day. He told me once: "Women take to spiritual life more easily than men, but they don't rise very high. Men go much slower, but they attain greater heights."
Things went along for years like this, none of the models clearly prevailing. It was perhaps inevitable that eventually a fourth model should present itself — a model dictated by our headquarters at Belur Math. But more about this in a moment.
I now see that the organizational strivings on my part displeased our master. For in my effort to produce tangible results and see to it that my model prevailed, I worked too hard, became strident, became competitive, and gave too little attention to human, let alone spiritual, factors. This was not in the least karma yoga. I had to be dispatched to our hermitage a couple of times to calm down. I can still hear Swami Prabhavananda saying, "Prema, never forget that work is secondary. I don't care how much you produce. If you'd agree, I'd remove all work from you and arrange for you to spend full time in intense spiritual practice."
In 1963 I went to India to take sannyas and stayed there for nearly a year. At the time of my trip to India a dozen years earlier I had been the bumptious journalist and intrepid reporter and had seen little beyond externals. Now I was to become that enviable being I had hardly dared hope ever to become, a swami of the Ramakrishna Order. I took great pleasure, as a Catholic cleric would take when for the first time visiting Rome, in learning about the operation of the Order from those senior leaders in charge at Belur Math.
What I discovered astonished me. Certain policies followed in Hollywood, which I supposed were sacrosanct and Order-wide, were not accepted at Belur Math at all. As I observed and questioned, I saw a fourth model emerge. Not the family, nor the business organization, and surely not the guru cult, but monasticism, disciplined and strongly governed from Headquarters. This is what the leaders of the Order wanted to see operating in all branches, including Hollywood.
Much of what Belur Math envisaged we were already following, of course. But several principles were mentioned which were at variance with what we practiced in Hollywood.
The first concerns obedience. For the sannyasin the sannyas guru is the supreme guru. He is the President of the Ramakrishna Order, considered to be Sri Ramakrishna's representative on earth. Obedience rendered to the diksha guru (the guru who gives initiation) must now be superseded by this higher loyalty. In effect, Swami Madhavananda, in his capacity as supreme chief, would be my ultimate master in the future, in place of Swami Prabhavananda.
But this was to me outright heresy. We had been taught such an awe of our diksha guru — he held the life and death of our soul in his hands. We must obey him implicitly, we should never leave him, he would never leave us. "The guru is God."
Although my doctoral thesis considered this doctrine of the guru as God, I was never wholly convinced of this, or rather shall I say that I was ambivalent about what it meant. I had heard upon occasion Swami Prabhavananda tell recalcitrant disciples: "Do what I say; I am your God." But how far was this simply Bengali exuberance? And now I was led to understand that however I had comprehended the matter before, I must fit into the scheme a new allegiance to the sannyas guru, the President of the Order.
Second, I learned that the Ramakrishna Order is an organization exclusively of men and that those women who had taken sannyas in Hollywood were what the General Secretary termed as being in an anomalous situation. This discovery came at Belur Math on the day we were handed out a revised official list of sannyasins on the roll in 1963. The names of the Hollywood sannyasinis did not appear. I thought there must have been a mistake. Incensed, I rushed to the office and confronted an assistant secretary with the omission. He replied calmly: "But they're not in the Order, never have been, and never will be.'
But this went against everything we had been taught. The slightest hint of male chauvinism in Hollywood had produced shouts of "woman-hater" from Swami Prabhavananda. Indeed, after I took sannyas he told me to regard those sannyasinis who were senior to me as my respected elders in the hierarchy.
Third, a sannyasin is a sannyasin, with all rights and privileges in the Order, be he of Indian origin or western. Of course, what duties he will be assigned will depend on his qualifications. This was a surprise, as we had been taught in Hollywood that Indians would always form the operating élite and that no westerner could aspire to even modest posts of leadership. We might be sannyasins but we would be sannyasins of a sort of lay-brother quality.
Fourth, western sannyasins should have the same transfer possibilities as prevail in India — reassignments effectuated by Belur Math and agreed to by the parties concerned. This too was a most astonishing principle, as we had been led to believe that for us the Benedictine principle of lifelong stability would apply and we would remain always in the center where we had joined. I was already champing at this restriction as I'd been in Hollywood for fourteen years, found that my mind had changed, and that what had challenged me in the earlier years there no longer held any great appeal.
What a surprise these revelations were!
I was now fifty years old, and loath to return to Hollywood. I thought of prolonging my stay in India but came to feel that the climate and lack of comfort there would be too difficult to adapt to. So in the fall of 1964 I returned to Hollywood in a troubled state of mind.
When I told Swami Prabhavananda what I had discovered in India — the operating principles which were considered quite normal in India but which were so different from what we had been taught by him — he was outraged. Any anger he had shown before was nothing to what he showed this time. He told me that I was all wrong and that if I believed such things I'd better leave.
I realized that in effect Swami had never budged from the model of the family. We might conceive of the Center in any manner we wished, but his idea of it was the joint family, of which he was the patriarch. Yes, this shows his greatness, his love. When it came to his children he was not rational at all, nor thinking about organizational principles or advancement factors. We were little ones at his feet and should be delighted to be such and as such to remain. This would lead more directly to the self-fulfillment we sought than any other alternative, and he may well have been right. (I understood this only gradually; my citing Belur Math principles could never have convinced, only infuriated, him.)
My mentioning of the sannyas guru as the supreme guru he considered a reflection on his own spiritual capacity. "All right," he cried, "if you can find a more spiritual man than I, go to him, become his disciple — if you can get him to accept you. I release you." He also said, on another occasion, that being guru gave a leader leverage over the disciples, and that if the President or Vice President in far-off India were to be the diksha guru (as in India), "we should lose all our power." O Swami, what an astonishing combination there was in you of holy simplicity and astute practicality!
It is to Swami's credit and proof of his modernism that he felt women should be given an equal place in the work as men. In his eyes we were not men and women as such, possibly competing for place, probably waging the war of the sexes, but innocent children. He could never see, to his dying day, why this should be otherwise, and the periodic reminders from Headquarters calling for a separation of the sexes only baffled and infuriated him. What I had been told that day by the assistant secretary he completely rejected, and I was commanded to reject it also.
There is a long history concerning this question. As early as 1894 Swami Vivekananda called for a women's math, whose abbess was to be Sri Sarada Devi. Swami Vivekananda initiated several women into sannyas. Through the years, women's organizations sprang up, loosely connected to the Ramakrishna Order, but obtaining no formal recognition. In 1953, the Centenary of the birth of Sri Sarada Devi, the Sri Sarada Math was officially organized, with its own headquarters across the Ganges from Belur Math. Swami Prabhavananda was responsible for providing a large part of the funds necessary for the purchase of this property. Swami Sankarananda, President of the Order at the time of the Centenary, gave sannyas to several senior women; then the Sri Sarada Math was put on its own, to form its own hierarchy, carry out its own brahmacharya and sannyas initiations, and proceed independently as a parallel monastic order. Today the Sri Sarada Math is functioning very well, with several branches in India and one in Australia.
I believe that the strong insistence on separation voiced by the governing body in India was due partly to its wish to prevent possible guru cults from developing in the West and partly from the feeling that a mixing of the sexes must lead to moral lapses and a consequent decline in the purity of the Order. Woman is a temptress; this may be a dated idea, but it is very prevalent in the Indian psyche. Swami Prabhavananda never saw it in this way, although he did have a case where one of his nuns and one of his monks fell in love and wanted to leave and marry. His attitude was: "Sex is sex. There are temptations everywhere. Women living exclusively with women and men with men can also induce impurity." We had cases of that also.
Swami had obtained the official consent of Headquarters in 1949 to give sannyas to women disciples. And he did so then and afterwards whenever there were suitable candidates. His position was that since he himself was a member of the Ramakrishna Order anyone taking initiation from him must be automatically also a member of that Order. A prolonged controversy ensued, which was finally concluded in 1969 when the Trustees agreed to the following formula: The Hollywood sannyasinis ("pravrajikas" is the term used in the Sri Sarada Math) are members of the Ramakrishna Order but not of Belur Math and its hierarchy. At the Vedanta Society of Northern California a similar arrangement prevails.
Swami was elated by this decision, for he now felt sure that his "girls" would be protected after his death. "Otherwise my successor might throw them out." As it transpired, the successor, Swami Swahananda, respected Swami Prabhavananda's position in encouraging the growth of the convent and in permitting several additional candidates to take sannyas in the years which followed. At the same time the separation of the sexes, long urged by Belur Math, was increasingly formalized.
With respect to the third Belur Math principle, that all sannyasins are equal, I myself felt and still feel that the heads of centers in the West, as in India, should be, ideally, of Indian origin. Indians have in their blood a feeling for the sanscritic treasurehouse, for Indian legend, for Hindu philosophy, which even the most erudite western student of such matters could hardly hope to acquire. In the West, Indian-ness grants glamour and authority. It would be undesirable for a dilution to occur which could turn western centers into little more than transcendentalist study groups or new-thought churches. But western sannyasins may well act as assistant heads in the West, branch leaders, or managers, and now in several centers do.
As we mature our interests change, and when I returned to Hollywood in 1964 I could not see myself taking up again those promotional activities I'd been so delighted to initiate and expand years before. "No," said Swami, "don't get any ideas about becoming a lecturer here." Yes, that would give me too much prestige and create jealousy. Platform work at that time was confined to those of Indian origin. A "real" swami in the West in those days was one who gave public lectures. I believe that what was on Swami's mind also was his belief that anyone appearing before the public would be seen as an example of spirituality, and he simply felt that Indians made better examples than could any of us. The spiritual emanation of a speaker is far more important than anything he says or the brilliance of his presentation. Of course he was right. But talks had to be given in Hollywood and its branches, and how many other Prabhavanandas were available? Eventually it worked out that western sannyasins and brahmacharis, and pravrajikas and brahmacharinis, were called upon to do a good deal of public work in Hollywood and its branches, but not until after 1976 when Swami Prabhavananda died.
About transfers, Swami was less severe. It is true that up until that time there had never been any — each head of center feeling more comfortable with his own disciples and adhering to the precept of neither a lender nor a borrower be. But if I were as restless as I seemed to be I might try to find a place elsewhere. Eventually the post of aide to Swami Ritajananda at Gretz in France was negotiated, where I have worked happily as a sort of "real" Swami for the past twenty-five years. I am the first western swami to have made a move of this sort. Since then there have been several other cases, and transfers of western brahmacharis between centers have also occurred.
But again, how bewildering Swami was! After seeming to concur in my reassignment to Gretz, even facilitating it, at the very last minute Swami balked. My reservations made and my bags packed, a day or two before I was to leave for France, he actually pleaded: "Prema, stay with us for a little longer. Stay with me at least six months more." Can one imagine such a thing? Anyone else in the same situation would have been relieved to get rid of me. My stomach turned over agonizingly when I had to reply: "No, Swami, let us be sensible. You should realize that it would never work."
In August, 1966, when I had been in Gretz for four months, I received a letter from Swami Prabhavananda accusing me of trying to wreck his work while in India; and so he wanted nothing more ever to do with me. Even today, when I chance to look at the file in which that letter is preserved I feel sick. I must have loved Swami more than I realized, or he possessed supernatural powers to project his anger right across America and the Atlantic. For that very afternoon I developed a high fever and had to go to bed for three days. What seems to have happened is that he was led to interpret my efforts in India to understand Belur Math orthodoxy in relation to Hollywood orthodoxy as gross disloyalty to him. Here apparently was something unimaginable, beyond excuse. Isherwood has documented Swami's utter identification with his own guru, Swami Brahmananda; Swami presumably supposed that his disciples felt the same unquestioning identification with him and his policies.
Reports reaching me from Hollywood assured me that the matter was really serious, and Swami did maintain the proscription for years. Birthday letters and Christmas cards which I sent to him evoked no response, and hints that I might like to visit Hollywood brought forth no welcome. (All this at the same time as I was having to cope with the problems of learning to live and work in France.) I understood the significance of the scriptural text describing the sadhu as soft as a flower and hard as granite. Only the famous example of Maharaj's treatment of Swami Sankarananda and the reconciliation which finally occurred between them consoled me. The effect on me was probably positive, for I redoubled my efforts to be "right" — and as much a "real" swami at Gretz as could be, so that my master should even still take pride in me and relax his interdiction.
In 1973 I felt I must return to Southern California to see my mother for the last time, who was eighty-six and said to be dying. Swami let it be known that I could visit the Hollywood center at the same time. It was an emotional encounter. I was not inclined to play the repentant prodigal, for I felt that however he interpreted my attitudes, I had acted in good faith according to my nature and my lights. For his part, Swami greeted me in an offhand manner which but poorly — or so I hoped — masked the intense emotion he felt in having me near him again.
An amusing scene — a vintage Prabhavananda scene — was enacted when we met. He was at the luncheon table when I arrived. I was shocked to see how aged he had become. He was eighty — tiny and trembly and really old. I was sixty but had been told that I hadn't changed much since the time I'd left California seven years before. After I rose from my pranam, Swami looked at me through dimmed eyes and intoned mournfully: "Ah Prema, ah Prema, how old you have become!"
I had really nothing to say, and in the three or four times I saw him I mostly sat silent in his presence. I wanted only his blessing and to know that everything was all right between us, for this would surely be the last time that we should meet. I asked for his blessings. "Of course you have my blessings," he replied. "It is true that the man in me was mad at you, but the guru in me was never mad at you. If it had been, nothing in the three worlds could have saved you." I have puzzled over this statement many times. What does it mean? Are there then transgressions so heinous that forgiveness for them is not possible? Can divine grace be definitively withheld at the behest of the guru? It is a thought to give one pause.
Frail as he was, Swami was capable of his old machismo. This is what happened at the last interview, on 21 February, 1973. Swami was propped up in his big armchair, his feet on a footstool. I sat on a cushion beside him on the hearth. Suddenly he asked, "How is your meditation?"
"Never very satisfactory."
"It should be by now. You should be able to retain the vision of your Ideal for at least thirty uninterrupted minutes at a time."
"Oh no, Swami, I'm afraid not."
"Do you repeat your sannyas mantras every day?" This question surprised me. Sannyas is a long ceremony comprising many mantras, but it turned out that he was referring to three particularly sacred mantras which constitute the essence, as it were, of the whole.
Irritation. "No? Well, who gave you sannyas?"
"Swami Madhavananda, at Belur Math, on 7 January, 1964. You know. You were there."
"And he didn't tell you to repeat them every day?"
"All right, follow me." And Swami recited the first of the three mantras and ordered me to follow. He repeated it twice more and asked me to speak it after him each time. (Three repetitions of anything count as making it true.) The same with the second and the third essential sannyas mantras.
"And now," Swami said, leaning back in a satisfied way, "You've practically taken sannyas from me. I'm your sannyas guru."
That was all. I prostrated, pulled his feet — or at least one foot, as I was too moved to make the gesture with aplomb — against the top of my head, and left, shattered and astonished. It was outrageous; it flew in the face of all that I had learned. Normally it is the President of the Order who gives sannyas to men in India at a great ceremony — and anyway, who ever heard of giving sannyas again to someone who already had it? (But I must say, I have repeated those three mantras every day since.)
It was an act of spiritual genius, free, spontaneous, symbolic, liberating. In one blow, as outlandish as it was "illegal", my guru gave me the absolution I longed for, and the chastisement he felt I needed.
Now, many years after that last interview, and many years also after Swami Prabhavananda's death, I begin to catch the meaning of that deep and puzzling phrase: the guru is God. I have had an exposition of it for forty years but am only now beginning to grasp the import. As I said, some of us come to terms with ourselves slowly.
I don't know how many other gurus like him there are or will be in our Order; Swami Prabhavananda was of the old school. And maybe the Order, proceeding lawfully, as orders must, is more comfortable without him. After all, the traditional Indian guru materializes on his own, not subject to the restrictions of any organization or relying on it for any advantages. He is an individual and his entire concern is the development of other individuals. This is the sort of person Swami was instinctively, but he bore with the Order because of its origin in Sri Ramakrshna and its fostering by Maharaj and Swami Vivekananda, and as an insurance for his spiritual descendants after his death. Mystics are upsetting to organizations, and vice versa.
The reader may then well ask: then what about those who are disciples of less talented masters, or those initiated by a President or Vice President of the Ramakrishna Mission, whose contact with their guru throughout their entire lifetime may be solely the few minutes they spend with him during the ceremony of diksha? Is the quality of their initiation and the prospect for their growth, then, less? The answer to a question like this was given in M's first interview with Ramakrishna, as related in the Gospel: "Is God, who has made the stars and the moon, and taught mothers to care for their children, not capable of leading souls according to their needs?"
Nothing ever comes from outside. All is within, as Swami Vivekananda says in Raja Yoga, even the guru is within, God is within. The trick is to bring this innate divinity up to consciousness — the most difficult task of one's life. This is what life is for. And what the guru is for, as Swamiji says, is to disperse the obstacles so that what is innate in the organism can become manifest.
Since the principal obstacles are our ignorance and self-importance, which blind us, the guru works first and foremost to break down the ego (which we don t know we have). This is a delicate operation, for if he cuts too superficially there will be small success. If he cuts too profoundly he may, figuratively, kill the patient. In some senses, every human relation, no matter how trivial, is a guru-disciple relation. The problem with most human relationships is that because of the ignorance on both sides, not much enlightenment accrues to either participant. Wisdom in the mentor is needed (rare) and readiness in the learner (also rare). Thus the proverb: Great gurus imply great disciples.
Parallels in psychoanalytic practice are apparent.
In the case of introspective individuals it may be possible for one to be one's own guru. In his great biography of the American novelist Henry James, Professor Leon Edel shows how James wrote himself into a kind of cure. Following the middle-age crisis in his life around 1895, which invalidated his talent and threw his mind into depression, James composed a series of works whose invented characters acted out in fictional form aspects of the author's own malaise and moved to solutions which the author could accept for himself. A half-dozen such works, completed in an equal number of years, led James back to psychological well-being. A kind of enlightenment emerged, which made James the supreme artist he became, and a sage, in the remaining years of his life.
I have tried to describe some such process, based on conscientious diary keeping, in section 2 of Chapter Eight. I believe this to be a valid technique; "talking to one's journal" can provide solace, and elicit from the Inner Guide counsel unavailable from other sources.
If one can love one's guru foolishly, blindly naďvely, then everything becomes easy. One co-operates with the doctor, and the healing processes of nature ensue. Faults of his character become lovable idiosyncrasies, or little obstacles meant to exercise our fidelity; his blind spots, his errors, appear as endearing human foibles which serve to make him more accessible. Swami Prabhavananda's passionate love for Maharaj transmitted itself easily into vision and ecstasy. Isherwood's love for Prabhavananda, it is apparent, was the central stabilizing and redeeming factor in the Chris's life. I once asked Chris how to face what seemed to me to be some really unexemplary actions on the part of our guru. This is what he replied: "As nothing more than the harmless eccentricities of a genius." Or as Swami Vivekananda said in his Inspired Talks", "No man should be judged by his defects. The great virtues a man has are his especially, his errors are the common weaknesses of humanity and should never be counted in estimating his character." Even rogues and scamps assuming the role of guru for ends other than altruist may produce positive results in the chela, if the chela can summon up this "blind" kind of love. Even low objects, idols and fetishes, will lead us to knowledge if we love them with the idea that they are God.
But what about stiff-necked individuals who cannot manage to scare up that kind of love, like me? Yes, I tried, and Swami tried also. Once in the early years he took me with him to the Trabuco monastery for a few days, just showering me with affection. He encouraged me to be open and free with him. Another time he invited me as his attendant on a vacation trip to the High Sierras, where he offered every grace. But it didn't work. I felt my identity was being swept away, and I held back.
And so for me there was only one effective path: skepticism, withholding of the conclusion until all the evidence was in. That can work too, as these souvenirs demonstrate. And there are instances of it in spiritual literature; but it is a longer and harder way. It is even said that one may attain God by hating him, because the act of hating causes the mind to concentrate strongly on the object, and it is a law that you cannot think of God intensely--no matter how--without attaining him. In the Gospel, Sri Ramakrishna says that realization is impossible without the annihilation of the mind: "The guru said, give me your thought and I will give you illumination."
A Hindu proverb declares that everybody gets the kind of guru he deserves. For many years I questioned this. I felt our chemistry — Swami's and mine — was all wrong; that his Bengali-ness couldn't be compatible with my pride, my reserve. His frankness embarrassed me, his habit of going into tantrums, real or assumed, turned me to ice. Not at all the sort of mentor for an organization man.
And so it turned out that I could think of almost nothing but this puzzle — the mystery of our evident incompatibility. I kept up my spiritual practices, did my japam, and wondered ruefully as the years passed what had gone wrong, why I had to be such a maverick. But as another Indian saying goes, I had been bitten by the cobra and must surely die. We must judge any therapeutic process in terms of its results. Ultimately all that Prabhavananda ever wanted from his children was that, as he frequently emphasized, they should become men and women of God. We find as we advance in it that the spiritual life isn't what we think it is at the outset. It has nothing to do with becoming better and better. It evidences itself by a transformation of the personality, by evensightedness, by inner joy, by outer loss of pride. I don't think Swami Prabhavananda cared a rap whether that transformation should occur by any particular process, although he evidently preferred the path of love. Skepticism, providing it was coupled with faithfulness to basic principles, could be considered a valid way also.
I still find "my" Swami difficult to understand. But I also see that a radical doctor was required for a difficult case. Swami was the third type of doctor Sri Ramakrishna spoke about — not the sort who simply prescribes remedies, not the type who, in addition to prescribing, coaxes the patient to take the medicine, but the third type, who puts his knee on the patient's chest and forces the medicine down his throat. If my guru had been a less forceful personality I would simply have, as so well taught by Lyle Spencer, taken him into camp, and that would have been the end of the story for me. No therapy would have occurred.
So as I look back, I have to conclude that the guru-disciple relationship, even though in our case "swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight" (in Matthew Arnold's phrase) nevertheless did work. You can say it shouldn't have, but it did. And so, although it is difficult to represent such matters on a proper organization chart, I have to admit the truth of the adage which declares that the guru indeed is God.