Video: On Being a Hindu Monastic: Personal Journeys

November 4, 2019
Two of the Hindu monastics at HDS during the 2019-20 academic year

A conversation with the three Hindu monastics visiting HDS this year, each representing a different Hindu tradition: Swami Sarvapriyananda (Ramakrishna Mission), Brahmacharini Shweta Chaitanya (Chinmaya Mission), and Sadhak Akshar–Guru: Mahant Swami Maharaj (BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha).

 

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

So tonight, we're having a very exciting event, and I think we'll enjoy it and my introduction will be brief. Is to hear from our three distinguished Monastic visitors here this year, and I'll introduce them more in a moment. But Swami Sarvapriyananda, Shweta Chaitanya, Akshar [INAUDIBLE], three distinguished academics who have come here for serious study this year. But to inaugurate this new program for the year by having them speak on a more personal level about how it is that they came to their own communities, what it means for them to take up the Monastic calling, and how they see studying as fitting into that. So I think it'll be an exciting time for us to reflect on the meaning of their being here and to celebrate their presence in our midst.

A little bit of background, perhaps, will help. Harvard Divinity School, now in its third century, has in recent decades distinguished itself by venturing to be more robustly interreligious. And so by saying that, the tradition out of which the school grows remains important, the Protestant Christian tradition. But that in the 21st century, the school is at the service of the wider American community and international community of people of so many different faiths, traditions. People who are seeking and searchers and trying to bring it together in a community of learning where faculty and staff and students can learn with one another and be able to understand each other's traditions in a more robust and deep fashion.

In fact, it's very appropriate for us to be in this building tonight, the Center for the Study of World Religions founded in 1960, dedicated on its first day in 1960 by Dr. Radha Krishnan. Came from India, especially for that purpose, which was founded to have at Harvard Divinity School a community space where people would live in the apartments here, study the other traditions, but also have neighbors belonging to the other traditions. And I think in some ways this program is a continuation of that practice.

Likewise, I think it is a Divinity School. And a Divinity School we're very concerned about the theory, the critical understanding of religion, the history of religions. But also about the lived practice. What does it mean to be a member of a community, to be a practitioner? And I think this program is very much in that model of honoring the fact that people think and also practice and believe according to the things that they understand.

One of the models that we have for what we're beginning this year is the well-established Buddhist Ministry Program at Harvard Divinity School. So donors years ago gave money to bring in Buddhist Monastics from Asia, and then bring in some for longer-term study to reflect on campus the importance of the Asian Buddhist communities, all the different parts of Asia coming here and being here at present.

And I think it's a wonderful thing that South Asia, the Hindu communities of India, are now going to be part of the same mix. And we have three wonderful representatives who look the part. They're very good about wearing their Monastic garb around campus in a way that is welcoming. So to be outstanding, to be seen, and noticed as they walk around campus. But also not off putting, but rather saying, we're here, we love to talk to you, we're here because we want to learn from you and to mix it up together. And I think this is part again of the great venture of Harvard Divinity School in the 21st century is to represent in what it looks like the way in which it wants to be this interreligios space over the years.

And this, I think, is a growing enterprise, a growing movement that we are happy now to be part of. There's another occasion we might talk about the newly released book that has just come out, Hindu Approaches to Spiritual Care, Chaplaincy in Theory and in Practice. It gets about 25 or 30 distinguished practitioners and professors writing about campus ministry chaplaincy and hospitals and other forms of service in the community from a Hindu perspective. And to find ways to make that also a part of our life in this program here.

I must immediately-- I do have a number of people to thank. But thank [INAUDIBLE] and Ajit [? Negral, ?] who are here anonymously in the crowd with us tonight for their generous support. When I raised the idea with them several years ago of having this kind of program, they immediately responded well and they really took up the possibility, the imagination, of jumping into this project. Let's see what happens.

They've been involved with it right from the start. They've been very friendly to us and very gracious in coming here tonight and being here and supporting us in what we do. So thank you both for your support.

[APPLAUSE]

And finally before introducing our Monastic guests, there are other people I'd just like to thank. There are too many people to thank. I've already mentioned thanking the staff of the Center for the Study of World Religions and Professor Stang, the Director of the Center. Also, the Office of Academic Affairs, the-- has been very helpful from beginning to end of setting up this project. Sheila Dennis, the Associate Dean for Development and External Relations, Kristen Anderson, Dean of Administration, Beth Flaherty, who makes it all work by waving her magic wand over the finances of this project and bringing it to completion.

There are so many people to thank. Emily Farnsworth, where is Emily? There's Emily, who wrote up the wonderful piece that is at the Harvard Divinity site about this project and also in the Harvard Gazette. Jonathan Beasley and Mike Norton in the Communications Office. Christy Welch, who made the wonderful poster that we have for this occasion. And others.

And I think I'll stop there, otherwise, we'll go all night just with thank you's. So what I thought I would do is introduce our speakers one by one. The first one will speak, then I'll introduce the second, and the second will speak, and I'll introduce the third. And then after the three of them have spoken, if I'm inspired, I may ask a penetrating question for all three of them just to get started. And then open it up for your discussion. And we'll break up the formal session around 7:00 PM. But of course, people will be welcome to stay around for a while.

So our first presenter is Brahmacharini Shweta Chaitanya. Her vedanta journey began when she began attending children's classes in Chin Maya Mission Houston when she was six years old. After completing her undergraduate study degree in Sanskrit at the University of Texas in Austin, one of the very best places to study Sanskrit in this country, inspiration from the vedanta teachings of the Chin Maya Mission, compounded with her Sanskrit studies and led her to take up a two year residential vedanta course in Mumbai in 2014.

So to go deeper into the Sanskrit in a lived practical tradition. After being trained in great depth by Swami [INAUDIBLE] for two years there, she came back and did a master's degree in South Asian studies at Columbia University in New York City. Then in 2017, the worldwide head of the Chin Maya Missions, Swami [INAUDIBLE] initiated her into the Monastic order as a Brahma [INAUDIBLE], now with the name Shweta Chaitanya. Posted now in Houston, Shweta shares the message of right to vedanta through discourses offered at the Chin Maya Mission in Houston, study groups across the greater Houston area, and for this special year right here in Boston. So let us welcome Shweta Chaitanya as our first speaker.

[APPLAUSE]

[INAUDIBLE], everyone. Oh, sorry, I'll stand here. Many thanks to everyone that put this program together and allowed us the opportunity to share with you all. And many thanks to everyone for coming out to hear what we have to share. So this here on the screen, this is Tukaram Maharaj. He was a saint poet of Maharashtra in the 17th century who wrote devotional poetry on the deity Vitthal of Pandharpur.

His poems reveal a rather unconventional poet who wrote very candidly and openly about his faith, his struggles with it, and of course, the incomparable peace he found through it. It was not common to write as bluntly as he did, but it made him accessible and lovable. This picture here was taken at the Gatha Mandir in Maharashtra. And along the walls of the temple, his poetry is inscribed. And one of the most profound sentences in red right there you'll see is, turn your phone off. So yes.

[CHUCKLING]

So in this talk, I thought I would share my two main inspirations that I had in life who truly gave me strength to take up this Vedanta study seriously. So I thought I would share about how they came in contact in my life, or how I came in contact with them in my life, and what they meant to me. OK.

Today in Maharashtra, Sant Tukaram Maharaj is loved by many and is honored every year. His padukas, or footprints, are carried in a massive pilgrimage that starts from his hometown, Dehu, and goes all the way to Pandharpur, where they reach on the auspicious city of [NON-ENGLISH].

Similarly, the padukas of other saints, like Sant Dnyaneshwar, are carried in separate processions as well. They come together in Pandharpur, where the poets are finally united with their beloved Vitthal.

This procession is called the Wari, and those who participate in this on-foot journey are called Warkaris. I come from a family of several generations of Warkaris, the most recent one being my great uncle. Growing up, my parents would take me and my sister to their hometowns, their villages, for the duration of our summer vacation. There, we would get the opportunity to spend quality time with our family and the Warkari tradition.

Our vacations would overlap perfectly with the Wari, and it just so happens that the Tukaram Wari stops for a night in my mother's village every year. For about a week before the procession arrived, the entire village would get together and start preparing food and making arrangements for the Warkaris. Everyone prepared as if Tukaram Maharaj himself was coming.

When they arrived, we would perform Aarti for the padukas and serve dinner to the thousands of devotees. That night, we would sing kirtans for hours, sleep for maybe 30 minutes, and then offer Aarti once more to the padukas early in the morning. Before 6 AM, the Wari was already off to the next village.

My experience with the Warkaris and with Tukaram Maharaj's poetry have been most precious in my life. The Warkaris I met over time had such beautiful and profound insights on life, and such a calming presence, that I couldn't help but want to be like them.

Some traveled with nothing, and yet were joyous and at peace with each other and with their surroundings. The Warkaris, my grandfather, and my mother soaked up the teachings of Tukaram at every chance they could get. But they also spoke highly of texts like the Bhagavad Gita, a text which Dnyaneshwar later refashioned into Marathi Ovis, and it's famously known as the Dnyaneshwari.

Their words were so inspiring that I decided to explore those texts and others to whatever extent I could. But I quickly realized I didn't have the language skills necessary. And so my undergrad and master's experience revolved heavily around trying to fill that gap. And "trying" is the operative word there.

One thing led to another, and in 2014, I found myself in Mumbai at [NON-ENGLISH] ashram as a student in the 16th Vedanta course. Swami Chinmayananda was the founder of this ashram. And that's him sitting down, and that's his guru, Tapovan Maharaj.

He himself had studied Advaita Vedanta in the Himalayas for some time under the guidance of Topvan Maharaj. It is said that Tapovan Maharaj told Swami Chinmayananda that in order to teach him, Swamiji would have to meet two non-negotiable conditions. The first one, no note taking. And the second one, when a question is asked about class material, Swami Chinmayananda would have to answer correctly.

I don't know what to say other than I'm deeply grateful that Swami Chinmayananda was able to abide by these conditions, and that I'm perhaps more grateful that he did not expect his students to abide by such conditions.

[CHUCKLING]

Prior to his studies, Swamiji was a freedom fighter and a journalist, and had a fervent passion to serve. With that spirit, he came back down to the plains to make the teachings of Advaita Vedanta available to all. He shared what he knew in English with men and women alike, regardless of caste or creed. So that's, as I mentioned, Tapovan Maharaj, and this is Swami Chinmayananda sitting down.

In 1963, he welcomed the first batch of students to his ashram, where they were taught the principal texts of Advaita Vedanta, or the [NON-ENGLISH], in light of the commentaries authored by Adi Shankaracharya. After the course, students were free to choose whether or not they wanted to be initiated into the monastic order.

From the very first batch, he openly initiated both men and women. This unapologetic side of Swami Chinmayananda drew me to his teachings and to the ashram. I was not planning to join the monastic order when I joined the course, but the more I learned about it, the more I was inspired to follow that path. Time and space to grow in learning and practice was exactly what I was looking for, and I feel I have found it in monasticism. I am only just beginning my journey, but I know I can forever lean on my two pillars in life, Tukaram Maharaj and Swami Chinmayananda, for guidance along the way.

So now I thought I would share some pictures and some information about how a day in the Vedanta course goes by. So first, we start off with our 4:00 AM wake-up call. Apparently, there is a bell that used to ring at 4:00 AM that I never heard, so.

[CHUCKLING]

But I did wake up at 4:00 from day one, or even 3:45 sometimes. And not to do any spiritual practice, but because I needed ample time to account for all of my failed attempts at draping a sari for the first time. So there we go.

This right here is-- it's now renovated, but I wanted to show a picture of what the Swami Chinmayanandaji's kutia, or where he stayed in the ashram, what it looked like. You can see it right there. Of course, it is renovated from what it was. But it was a very nice place for us to go and meditate, or just reflect on the teachings of that day, or previous classes.

All right. Our very first class of the day was Vedic chanting. And this would happen at 5:30 AM. Here we learned how to chant different Veda mantras in the Krishna Ayurveda style of chanting. And so this is a picture from my batch. And on the very-- I guess your right side-- the very right side, that arm that you can see is mine.

[CHUCKLING]

After Vedic chanting, from 6:00 to 7:00, we had about an hour to do meditation, or to review, again, for reflection. So many people would go to the kutia that I showed you. Or you could do this in your room. It was also a time to, again, review class material. And it was also a time that if you wanted a cup of chai, you could go get one at 6 o'clock.

At 7:00 AM, we had our first class. And that was the-- it was mainly an Upanishad class that happened at 7:00 AM. And so this is what our classroom looked like. It was called the Saraswati [? Nilayam. ?] I'm being self-indulgent, but in the second row, the first person is me.

[CHUCKLING]

But this is what our class looked like. And we had these nice little desks that we could use to follow along with the teachings. This was our guruji. His name was Swami [? Bodhatmanandaji, ?] and he was our acharya or teacher for the duration of the two years. And it is from him that we learned all of our Upanishadic knowledge, all of our knowledge of Shankar [NON-ENGLISH], or the commentaries written by Shankaracharyaji. He was a guide. He was everything for us in those two years. And it was a very special bond that we all created with our teacher. And it's one that I'll never forget.

After our Vedanta class, we would go for breakfast at 8 o'clock. And this is our dining hall. This picture is not from the batch that I attended, but from the batch that just finished. But as you can see, we all used to line up, get our food, and then sit and quietly eat.

After this, at 9:00 was again a break for studying. Or many times, I saw that many people would form study groups and would study together. It was also a time for people who wanted to study more Sanskrit, they could do that. I did it. It was hard. But there was a class where they taught us a text called [NON-ENGLISH]. And so I studied that from 9:00 to 10:00 every day with a group of other students.

Then at 10:30 was the official Sanskrit class. And so we would have Sanskrit class. And it was divided by level, so those who were fresh to Sanskrit would meet on certain days. An intermediate level would meet on certain days, and then advanced level would meet on certain days.

After that at 12:00, we had stotram class, where we would learn devotional compositions mainly written by Adi Shankaracharyaji, but we would also learn things like Vishnu Sahasranamam, Lalitha Sahasranamam. We learned Shiva Sahasranamam. Actually, Lalitha Sahasranamam, I scratch that. We learned that later. But Shiva Sahasranamam, we did learn. And we also learned how to conduct 16-step puja during that time period.

Then at 12:30, we had lunch. After lunch, we used to walk. And it was something started by our Swami-ji. He would walk, and then we would follow, like a flock of birds after him. And you would ask us questions about class material. And it was very kind of rapid-fire style. He would ask anyone a question. And we had to be able to answer. It was nothing like what Swami [INAUDIBLE] went through with his teacher, but we got a little flavor of it here.

After this walk, from about 1:30 to 4:30, we had a larger break, where we could nap, do laundry, of course, study. It was a very precious time for all students. They got to kind of recoup from their 4:00 AM wake-up call.

Then at 4:30, we had our next Vedanta class. At 5:30 was another break, where many students would bathe, that they would do their [SANSKRIT]. And they would get ready for Arthi, which happened at 6:30 in the temple.

And all of us would chant the Arthi, was taken from the Mahanarayana Upanishad. We would chant it on rotation. So every day was someone's turn to chant Arthi. It was a very nice experience.

And then in the temple itself, at 7:00, we would have the last class of the day, which was a more bhakti-oriented class. And so the texts that we learned were the Tulsi Ramayan, as well as [SANSKRIT]. And so those are large texts, so naturally, it took a long time. And that's all we could cover in the two years. But it was a wonderful time. Those who wanted to sing would sing in the first 10 minutes. And then we would get into class.

After that was dinner at 8:00. And then, again, the walk, followed by rapid-fire questions and walking. And then we could retire for the day. And many students would study a little bit more. And then by 11 o'clock, 11:30, we would go to bed.

So I had a few more slides. But I think-- I don't want to use up too much time. But I hope this was a good summary of what we did in the course. And I'm happy to have this opportunity to share my experience with all of you. Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

So thank you, Shreta, for a wonderful and very vivid presentation. Our dean, David Hempton, is sitting in the back row. And I could hear his pen scratching during the whole session, taking notes about how to run a divinity school.

[LAUGHTER]

So changes will be coming soon.

[LAUGHTER]

Our second presenter tonight is Sadhak Akshar. Akshar was born and raised in Gujarat, in India. For the past six years, he has been a student at the BAPS, Swaminarayan's Sanskrit mahavidyalaya in Sarangpur. I was happy visit there about two years ago, and in fact, met him there. A very intense training center dedicated to study, to a simple life, and to spiritual practice. It's a very wonderful place to visit. It's a college of the Somnath Sanskrit University as well.

Akshar specialized in Sanskrit and the study of the Prasthanatrayi, so the Bhagavad Gita, the Brahma Sutras, and the Upanishads, and received both his BA and MA in Swaminarayan Ryan Vedanta. He remaining steeped in the traditional learning and teaching style of a seminary. All this transformed his thinking and helped shape his perspectives on religion, theology, history, philosophy, and other topics related to the academic life and also the personal life.

During those six years, he also learned as well as taught Sanskrit texts, including the Gita and The Upanishads. These are the texts that he is very interested in, but also, the vernacular scriptures of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya, particularly the Vachanamrut and the Swamini Vato, and the scriptures and practices even of other traditions as well. And he's expanding that horizon this year.

When he's not studying, which is rarely, he enjoys participating in and helping organize the many Hindu festivals which occur during the year. After this year at Harvard, he plans to join the Swaminarayan seminary in Sarangpur and embark on the further stages of monastic learning. So welcome, Akshar.

[APPLAUSE]

[CHANTING IN SANSKRIT]

Welcome, everybody. So in this presentation, I'm going to talk about three main things. And the first one is I'm going to introduce the tradition which I belong to and I come from. The second thing is how I came into this tradition. And the last thing, how I'm going to join being a sadhu, being a monastic.

So the first thing. I'm from Swaminarayan tradition. This [INAUDIBLE] came into existence with the incarnation Bhagawan Swaminarayan in the year of 1781. Throughout his life, Bhagawan Swaminarayan initiated sadhus, inspired them to live a model and pious life. He created renunciants who worked selflessly for god and society. He also promised to remain ever present on Earth, through a continuous lineage of spiritual successors.

After Bhagawan Swaminarayan was Gunatitanand Swami. And after him was a Bhagatji Maharaj and Shastriji Maharaj.

Shastriji Maharaj formalized the organization by registering it and establishing five [INAUDIBLE], the first one being in Bochasan. The name of the tradition was Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha. Big name. Do not worry, it will become small. There you go. So it is known as B-A-P-S, and also as BAPS.

So Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha. Bochasanwasi means to be based in Bochasan, which is a small village in the western part of India, in Gujarat. Akshar Purushottam, second and the third words are the doctrine which Bhagawan Swaminarayan gave.

He talked about five different entities-- Jiva, Ishwar, Maya, Brahman, and Parabrahman, so Brahman and Parabrahman, either way. So believing oneself as atma and as akshar and to worship Parabrahman, the Purushottam, this was the main doctrine.

And this is from Swaminarayan tradition, so the fourth word is Swaminarayan. And Sanstha, again, is a Sanskrit word, which means organization or community. Hence, Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, BAPS, or B-A-P-S.

Then came Yogiji Maharaj. Yogiji Maharaj was the one who spread this doctrine of Aksha Purushottam beyond the borders of India. Through his vision, guidance, and love, youths began to perfect their sadhana. This gave youths new identity and purpose.

After Yogiji Maharaj came Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who inspired me into sadhu fold, and we are going to look at his life in the presentation. And then came the present guru, Mahant Swami Maharaj.

So second point, how I joined the Swaminarayan tradition. In fact, I was born in this tradition. My parents were Swaminarayan. And from my childhood, I used to go to temple, do the Arthi, do puja everyday in the morning.

But there was one issue. I was part of the tradition, but the tradition was not part of me. So I was doing everything, but I didn't have real meaning why I am doing it. Generally, those who are raised in the tradition would experience that, first of all, small children imitate their parents. So I was doing the same.

But it so happened that after completing my 12th grade, I went to Bangalore, South India, to study engineering. And I started it. It was going well. But there were assignments due, tension, and everything was there.

During weekends, I used to go to temple nearby and listen to the discourses. The discourses were from the scriptures, like Krishna giving updesh Arjun and so on. And also, from the [INAUDIBLE] Swamini Vato.

So before I used to hear these scriptures and these discourses, but now, they were making sense because my situation was like Arjun.

[LAUGHTER]

I was unable to go back to Gujurat, to my parents, nor I was able to go to my classroom.

So over there, while I was studying the scriptures, what happened was that I was attracted towards studying and learning more about Sanskrit and our scriptures. So I decided that I will study Prasthanatrayi. Trayi the first three things-- the Gita, the Upanishads, and the Brahma Sutras. Three things, small word.

But to learn the scriptures, you should learn Sanskrit. And I didn't have any background in Sanskrit. And therefore, what happened was that-- so to study Sanskrit, you should be starting from child. There are [? pachalas ?] who teaches Sanskrit. And you should be patient. I wasn't child, and I wasn't patient.

[LAUGHTER]

But what happened was that then I decided that I will study it. So I went to Sarangpur in Gujarat, India. Sarangpur is a small village over here, the place. The people with whom I studied and the environment changed me. I studied the scriptures. And also, I was inspired to be a sadhu.

I joined the Sanskrit [? pachala, ?] which was named BAPS Swaminarayan Sanskrit [? pachala. ?] [? Pachala, ?] a school which uses traditional methods, teaching methods. So there is a guru-disciple relationship. You go to guru and study. You go to teacher and study scriptures. Memorization, every day in the morning we used to memorize mantras and verses.

One of the greatest things in Sarangpur was that Pramukh Swami Maharaj was there, my guru. I spent my first three years with him, with my guru, in class. We use to study Gita, Upanishad, and the Brahma Sutras.

So in Gita, if I am studying, [SPEAKS SANSKRIT]

This verse is from the 15th chapter, which talks about shar, akshar, and Purushottam. But to me, when I went for the [INAUDIBLE] Pramukh Swami Maharaj, I used to see that he is living these principles which are described, the virtues which are described in Gita and the Upanishads. His humility, his belief in god as all-doer, his devotion to god, and his love for all are some of the things by which I got inspired.

That's true that he has inspired millions, and also visited thousands of villages, and built hundreds of [INAUDIBLE], usually like [INAUDIBLE], varying from capital of India to Robbinsville, across the world.

But what was more inspiring to me was that, at the age of 92, and sitting in a wheelchair, he inspired me to live a life just as he did for his guru. And at that time, I decided that, after I complete my masters in Sanskrit, I would like to become a sadhu, get initiated by the hands of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, and then live a life just as he did.

In the year of 2016, it was 13th of August, he passed away. Then after Mahant Swami Maharaj came-- and so now, after a few years, I'm going to get initiated as a sadhu with the hands of Mahant Swami Maharaj.

There are those things which also inspired me. Senior santos in our santo ashram. Santo ashram is a place where santos stay. So I used to go and sit with santos, hours and hours, talking about life, the situation which I was facing in my daily life, and also talking about spiritual progress.

The teachers who came every day to teach us Gita, Upanishads, and other scriptures, they were very patient. Yes, really patient. I wasn't doing homework for a couple of days. But they were fine. They used to give me counsel that Askhar, you should do your homework. I was small at that time, six years back. But yes, there were patient.

[LAUGHTER]

Also, my friends-- [INAUDIBLE] I was lucky to study with them. They were the ones who were studying next to me, but they were ahead in the spiritual path. With [SANSKRIT] they were driving for sadhuta. [SANSKRIT] is attaining knowledge and just memorizing the scriptures. But sadhuta is something different. That's the other part and difficult part. That is to imbibe the virtues which you study in your life. I saw it in my friends. They used to wake up early in the morning. Why? Just to please, and just to imbibe the virtues which were given in the shastras.

Adjacent to our [? pachala ?] was [INAUDIBLE], training center for swamis. Youths who wish to enter the life of renunciation come to Sarangpur a sadhak. So I am a sadhak.

After sufficient introspection and clear understanding of spiritual goal, sadkah gains the ability for initiation. Then the sadhak is initiated by the guru as parshad. In parshad, you get a new name. Sadhak is generally for three years. Parshad is for one year.

After passing this one year, you will be initiated as a sadhu. The seven-year sadhu training, wherein any person cultivates four main things. Some of the photos, when parshads are initiated as sadhus.

The first one is service. Second, knowledge. Third, devotion. And the fourth one is austerity and unity.

Service, or seva-- the first step on the spiritual path is service, or seva. While performing seva, sadhus ignore personal comfort and remain ready to serve, regardless of place, time, and circumstances. Here, seva is not a mere physical act but a spiritual and a warrior leading to unity, humility, and god's grace.

This is the photo of santos and sadhaks and parshads going for flower picking. This is-- there are different sevas which rotates every 15 days. So early in the morning at 5 o'clock or in the evening, sadhak or santos go in the garden for picking up the flowers, roses and other flowers.

But the process was interesting. Garden was nearby, 300 meters. But when the groups of santas, parshads, and sadhaks go, they were in groups. They had baskets in their hands. There was cold breeze, 23 degree temperature. And then they were talking amongst themselves, the positive things which we have seen throughout the day. Moreover, some were singing devotional [INAUDIBLE], [SANSKRIT] Moreover, others were revising. And some others were memorizing scriptures, which they had to appear for exam the very next day. So this process was interesting to me.

The second thing is knowledge. Along with seva, knowledge is important. A part of their training, sadhus immerse themselves in learning two main things. The first, the principles of brahman and parabrahman; second, moral and spiritual ideas through the lives and work of Bhagawan Swaminarayan's spiritual successors, Gunatitanand Swami all up till Mahant Swami Maharaj.

The third thing which they learn there is devotion. Bhakti is an important and integral part of a sadhu's life. Throughout the day, sadhus attend arthis, spiritual discourses, meditation sessions, and visits sacred sites to pray and offer devotion. Bhakti fills their day with divinity and channels their focus towards god.

The fourth thing is austerity. Bhagawan Swaminarayan gave five main vows for sadhus. The first one, nishkam. Nishkam is the vow of eightfold celibacy. Second is nirlobh. It is the vow of renunciation of wealth. The third one is niswad. It's the vow of eating sanctified food in a wooden bowl after mixing water to it. The fourth one is nisneh. Nisneh is the vow of detachment from one's relative and accepting the entire world as one's own family. And the last one, nirman, is the vow of remaining humble.

It was the year of 2015 when this photo was taken. This is Sarangpur, Pramukh Swami Maharaj is sitting amongst the sadhus. There are currently 1,100 sadhus in BAPS. And I'm going to be one of them. And this is the greatest thing in my life.

In the end, I would like to ask for blessings from all of you. And I would pray in the face of my guru, Mahant Swami Maharaj, that just as he has pleased his guru, I can please my guru, Mahant Swami Maharaj.

In the end, I would conclude by the words written by Bhadreshdas Swami, who is the only living [INAUDIBLE] right now.

[CHANTING IN SANSKRIT]

[APPLAUSE]

So thank you very much, Ashkar, for a beautiful presentation. And it's one of these rare occasions where people aren't leaving, but more people are coming into the room as we go along. In fact, the two presentations so far are so beautiful, I'm thinking some of our students will now renounce the world and go off. So we have to keep them.

I would like now to introduce our third speaker, who is a distinguished swami of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society. But before introducing him, I should mention that there is another distinguished swami here, back there-- you can pick him out in the crowd-- Swami Tyagananda, who is the swami here in Boston for the Vedanta Society. And I've known Swami for about 30 years, first in India and here. So welcome, Swami. Nice to have you with us.

[APPLAUSE]

So our final presenter then, Swami Sarvapriyananda, joined the Ramakrishna Math and Mission in 1994 and received sannyas, his full monastic life, in 2004. Swami has served the Ramakrishna Math and Mission in various capacities, some of them quite administrative, being a vice-principal of the Deoghar Vidyapith Higher Secondary School, principal of the Shikshana Mandira Teacher Education College at Belur Math itself, and indeed, the first registrar of the Vivekandana University at Belur Math.

We had a speaker here a few weeks ago from Bengal, who turned out to have been a student when Swami was there as the registrar. So these worlds connect.

And just before coming to America, Swami served as an acharya of the Monastic Probationers Training Center at Belur Math, which is the very center of the Ramakrishna tradition.

When he came to this country, he first served as assistant minister at The Vedanta Society of Southern California for 13 months, beginning in December of 2015. And then he became the minister and spiritual leader of The Vedanta Society in New York and assumed his duties there in 2017.

And as he told me yesterday, when I visited the center there, it's one of the oldest centers in the world. It's a very distinguished center, a beautiful brownstone building on 71st Street by the park in Manhattan. And Swami is part of a long lineage of very distinguished swamis leading that center.

He is a well-known teacher. He's a popular lecturer. If you go online, you can find links to his talks everywhere. And we are very privileged to hear from Swami tonight. So welcome.

[APPLAUSE]

Namaste and good evening. It's a privilege and a pleasure to be here talking about something I love and love sharing.

So I'll start with Swami Vivekananda. And the reason I start with Swami Vivekananda is not only he's at the beginning of our order, the Ramakrishna order, but he was here in Harvard. I was researching him yesterday. And I found Harvard Crimson reporting the first Hindu monastic ever to come to Harvard and speak. He was here in 1896 at the [INAUDIBLE] Hall in Harvard Yard. And he gave a talk on Vedanta.

But the Harvard Crimson was not so much interested in Vedanta. They were interested in him. So the entire report is not about Vedanta. It's more about what a Hindu monk is like, exactly today's subject, actually.

[LAUGHTER]

And that was 120 years ago.

So Vivekananda, he came to this country in the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago. And there, you can see him there. He spoke there, representing all of Hinduism. And he was the first Hindu teacher to travel outside India, and talk about Hinduism, and teach Hinduism.

And there is also a connection to Harvard because Professor John Henry Wright, who was teaching at Harvard University, gave him the glowing recommendation. He had no credentials to speak at the World Parliament. And the credential he got was from Harvard University, from Professor John Henry Wright, who wrote a very effusive letter to the parliament that this person should be allowed to speak.

And he did. Became a very popular teacher. He came to New York, started the first Vedanta Society, where I am, and Professor Clooney spoke there yesterday.

But how did it all start? So Vivekananda was Narendranath Datta in Calcutta in the 1880s, a young college student. And his quest was a spiritual quest, a simple question-- does god exist? Can I experience god? Can I see god? And he went around, I think, putting people on the spot, and great spiritual teachers at that time, asking them, have you seen god? And what do you say to a question like that?

But they finally said that there is a person who has actually seen god. You should go and ask Ramakrishna Paramansa, who was the priest at the temple of Kali on the bank of Ganga, who most people considered crazy, some people consider considered to be god realized. A few were beginning to talk of him as an incarnation of god.

So anyway, Vivekananda-- later, Vivekandana-- Narendranath Datta, at that time, goes to Shri Ramakrishna and asks the question, have you seen god? And Shri Ramakrishna actually replies in the affirmative. Yes, I have seen him. I have seen god the way I see you. And you can see god too.

And so Narendranath found his guru. And on his path to becoming Vivekananda, he came to this country, again, inspired by the idea of spreading what he had acquired, the spiritual realizations he had acquired, in fact, the entire heritage of Indian spirituality, as he put it, 5,000 years of spirituality. He wanted to open it up to the world. And so he found a platform here in the World Parliament of Religions in 1893.

And he taught here for a few years. And then he came back once more at the end of the 19th century. And then he went back to India, founded the order of which I am a part. And he didn't live long. He used to say, I won't live to see 40. And he died at 39. But the order continued to grow and has centers all over the world, about 180 centers now.

And one of them was close to the place I lived when I was growing up. So my parents were-- and my grandparents were closely associated with this tradition. And I used to go to the ashram which was close to our house.

And I grew up, maybe the last generation before internet and cable TV. And so I grew up reading a lot of books. And a lot of books in the house were literature written by Swami Vivekananda.

And then what appealed to me was, is this really true, that god really does exist, self-realization is actually possible, and I can do it? Too and so that sort of-- I really hoped it was true because I really wanted to do that.

And even when I was a little schoolboy, I always felt that this is what I should do in life. I didn't know too much about monasticism. But as I kept on visiting the monastery, I began to understand. Looking at these monks, I felt, wait a minute. These people, they're not-- I mean, my parents, they have jobs, and money, and the house, and cars, and a family, and people, and things to do in life. And these people have nothing, none of these. And they are so happy. And they are at peace. So that really attracted me. And I kept on reading. At one point, I decided I am going to become a monk.

I was doing my MBA.

[LAUGHTER]

But finally, I remember the last assignment, I just submitted that assignment. Before that, I had gone to-- I had become initiated into a mantra in this order by my guru, Swami Bhuteshananda-ji, who was the 12th president of our order.

And I had sort of-- halfway through my MBA, I'd gone to the main monastery, asking, can I become a monk? And he very gently-- he was in his 90s. He very gently said, what are you doing now? I said, I am studying. How long will it take to complete? Is it over? He said-- I had to say, no, it's one year. One more year is there.

And very, very, very gently, he said, is it good to give up something halfway? Yeah. Which was a very wise thing to say, actually. A lot of people, at least some people want to become monks just before exams, you know?

[LAUGHTER]

I was doing some research for a midterm paper, Professor Clooney's paper. And I found in The Imitation of Christ, it says, on the day of judgment, we shall not be asked what we have read. I thought, wait a minute. Every class we have-- have you done the readings?

[LAUGHTER]

So I did go back and finished my studies. And then I became a monk in the order.

And what do I find? What is this order all about it? And this is very useful to understand the entire teaching of the order.

This is the logo, the emblem of the Ramakrishna Order. Swami Vivekananda actually designed it in New York. Somebody came to him and asked, we need an emblem or a logo for a publication. Could you suggest something? And the description is he took a napkin from the breakfast table and scratched something, sort of drew something with a pencil, and tossed it across the table to the printer, and said, draw it to scale. And that became the emblem of our order.

And what does it mean? It's very-- actually, it's packed with symbolism. The swan there represents ahumsa, the symbol of the infinite, the absolute of god, if you will.

And the goal is to realize god. And how do you do it? The sun rising in the background symbolizes knowledge, spiritual knowledge, jnana. And it stands for jnana yoga, the path of knowledge.

The lotus in the foreground stands for devotion or love, so bhakti yoga, devotion to god.

The wavy waters symbolize work, action in the word, so a life of service and doing good to the world, karma yoga.

And the serpent encircling the whole thing, it symbolizes yoga, the yoga of meditation, jnana yoga, or what Swami Vivekanda called raja yoga. And the idea is by harmonizing all of these, by practicing all of these, one attains to the vision of god.

So in the order, if you look at the life of a typical monk of our order, you will find it's divided into meditation, and study, and service, and devotional acts. So early in the morning, we would get up. In our training process, in the main monastery, in India, we'd get up at-- just like that, 3:40 in the morning, the bell would ring. And believe me, you heard it. They would make sure that you heard it.

I remember-- I don't know. We have a senior swami sitting here. I don't know whether I should share these.

[LAUGHTER]

I remember there was-- one time, one of the novices got so exasperated with the 3:40 AM bell that he actually hid the bell. But the person whose duty it was to ring the bell was very resourceful, so he took out a big steel plate and a steel cup and banged it all over the monastery, which was worse, actually.

I remember, in our training period, two years of intensive study at the main monastery. We counted. We had 26 bells in 24 hours. And the most disliked one was the one at 10:30 PM, which told you to go to sleep. Now, if you were already asleep, that was a very irritating bell.

[LAUGHTER]

So in our order, to become a monk, one spends 10 years, or nine to 10 years, as a novice. You'd be dressed in white. And you have the sacred tuft of hair and the sacred thread. And you're call the brahmachari. And two years is spent in intensive training.

And we study Vedanta intensively, the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita, with the commentaries of Shankararcharya and some other commentaries too. Plus, we study other philosophical texts, the introductions to the orthodox systems of philosophy, samkhya, and yoga, and all of that, And world philosophy, other religions, at least an acquaintance with other religions. So all of that is done intensively in two years.

But there is a whole process of study, and service, and meditation, and prayer which goes on in all of the centers of our order. So what Vivekananda did, he introduced certain innovations. Service was a very big factor, which he introduced. There was a lot of resistance from traditional, non-dualistic monks at that time. No, this is for householders. This is for people in the world. Why should monks run schools, and colleges, and hospitals, and relief activities in famine or flood?

But over the years, it transformed Hinduism in certain ways. For example, even right now, most ashrams, monasteries where there are monks, people go there. And one of the things they ask is, what kind of service activity are you doing? It's taken for granted. It's a revolutionary change, really.

I mean, I can share with you that one of the Shankararcharyas-- the four Shankararcharyas in different parts of India, who are part of the lineage started by the original Shankararcharya 1,200 years ago-- he visited our main monastery. And we were novices at that time. We remember sitting around him. And one of the questions he asked was about the service activities and how they can start. This is amazing. This 1,200-year-old, the Shankararcharya tradition, and they are asking how we can start service activities for the welfare of people. So this is one of the ways in which he changed it.

What really do I find attractive in this particular tradition? I was thinking about it. One is this beautiful balance of discipline and freedom. For example-- and it's important to me-- there are no banned books. So I can read books of every tradition, whatever.

I remember one of the first things that I asked one monk-- when I joined the order, I went to the library. And I found this nice collection of PG Wodehouse. I don't know how many of you have come across. They're very humorous books. I asked, can I read PG Wodehouse as a monk? I was a new monk. And the monk said something very interesting. He said, of course. You can read anything you want. But if I find you reading PG Wodehouse all the time, then there's something wrong with you.

[LAUGHTER]

So there's this beautiful balance of freedom. And recently, I read Ken Wilber, who was talking about why a lot of people, young people, especially in this country, they are drifting away from organized religion. So he makes three points.

One is, he says the clash with modern values. Sometimes organized religions, they tell us to believe something which we no longer believe in this age. It goes against the gender equality or certain things.

The second thing he said was that the violence between religions, this really is very off-putting, that violence, criticism, hatred between organized religions.

And the third thing he said was the conflict which people see between reason and religion, religion and science, for example, where something is taken as mainstream science and accepted by everything, and religion tells you, no, this is not the way it is. What we thought 5,000 years ago, that you have to believe in.

Now, what I liked about this tradition, particularly, was this freedom and this openness to new knowledge. Swami Vivekananda was all for a reason. He says, a man must not only have faith, but have intellectual faith too.

Harmony between religions-- this is another important thing which I found, that absolutely no criticism of other religions, Shri Ramakrishna said, as many faiths, so many paths to god. So very strongly, it's part of our tradition that all religions are valid, and all religions are true and deserve respect. And we can not only-- not like an ivory tower separation from religions, but actually, learn from other religions and enrich our own spiritual path. I know this kind of perennialism not in academic fashion these days, but I'm sort of old-fashioned. I prefer that kind of thinking.

And openness to the values of the modern world-- so this gender equality, we have a separate order for women. Swami Vivekananda thought about it more than 100 years ago. At that time, the burning issue back in India was widow remarriage. Should widows be allowed to remarry? So there was an orthodox section who said, no, this is against religion. There was a reform section who said, yes, they should be allowed to remarry.

And swami Vivekananda's his answer was very typical. They asked him, what do you-- which side do you fall on this issue? He said, why are you asking me? Am I a widow? They were surprised. Oh, but you must have an opinion on the side or that side. And his answer was amazing. He said, give freedom and education to women, and let them decide what they will do, whether they will marry or not marry.

This seems rather bland. But many years ago, I heard a historian in our Ramakrishna institutions giving a talk, this lady. She talked about that issue, 100 years ago, with the remarriage. And she said, it's amazing that a question which is so obvious to women, no man ever thought about it. There was one woman writer at that time who wrote, saying that I hear certain men telling me I'm free to remarry, and I can hear some certain other men telling me I'm not free to remarry. But nobody ever asks me what I want. And if I am asked, I would say I want the same freedom that men have. I want education and freedom. So you see how Vivekananda, he just felt the pulse of what was really needed. So all of these ideas, I found it very appealing, actually.

Here is a beautiful picture of the monks of our order taken a few years ago in front of the main temple. This is the temple of Shri Ramakrishna in India.

So after 10 years, you take the orders, and you become a monk. And your daily life is this harmony of meditation and service. In India, of course, we have a lot of service activities-- schools, colleges, hospitals, even a university.

Here, our service activity is basically teaching. Teaching, very interesting. The whole idea-- there's no idea of conversion, that you have to be converted from Christianity or Judaism into Hinduism. Absolutely nothing.

I have been-- I'm in that center, the first Vedanta Society, 125 years it's been running there. And if today, somebody comes and asks me, I want to be converted into something else, I wouldn't have the first idea to do. I don't know what to do, you know? So the idea is to teach these principles of harmony and high spirituality, and let people broaden their approach to spiritual life.

And then, so there is this meditation, and study, and service activities. There, I have been in a school. I've taught schoolchildren. I've been an administrator, as Professor Clooney said.

Devotional activities-- prayer, there is singing. I'm a very poor singer. And ritualistic puja. You will find all kinds of ritualistic pujas going on in Belur Math. And you will find ashrams. There is an ashram in the Himalayas in a place called [INAUDIBLE] with absolutely no ritual at all. You're not even allowed to bow down in front of a picture. So all of this tremendous variety of approaches to spiritual life, you find in this order. It's, again, something that's very attractive to me. I could go on.

But we will talk about it in the Q&A. Thank you very much. Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

Thank you, Swami. The one thing you didn't tell us where you are in this picture.

[LAUGHTER]

You could just point anywhere. We'll believe you.

[LAUGHTER]

There's a lot of orange.

So I would ask our three speakers to turn their chairs around, but don't blind yourself with the light, so that we can now open it up for discussion. So if you just flip your chairs.

So you have these beautiful traditions of learning. And you've all been studying Vedanta. You've been learning Sanskrit and so forth. Suddenly, you show up at Harvard Divinity School, only a bare two months ago. I wonder if I could ask each of you to say one of the things that surprised you most educationally, or how things are done here when you came here, just like one example each. And then we can open it up for further discussion. What surprised you?

This maybe isn't much of-- nothing has surprised me as such, I guess, because I went to school here in the US. But one thing that I greatly appreciate is the amount of resources that are available to students in this university setting. And that is entirely unique to this university setting. And I think here, especially at Harvard, it's especially unique. The kinds of things that are available on HOLLIS, in the libraries, you just can't get anywhere else with this kind of easy of accessibility. So that was one of the things that I truly appreciate about being here.

So you have another six or eight months to mentally download PDFs.

[LAUGHTER]

Swami.

Everything surprised me. I haven't been to school in the last 25 years. And that was back in India. And here I am, at Harvard of all places. I--

One thing I did was, when I was in the United States, I made it a point to take every opportunity to visit university campuses. I never got to come to Harvard earlier, but other campuses. And I used to think that these are the temples of the United States. These are magnificent institutions. I think god must have heard this. So you have this desire in your mind to be in an American university. Go to Harvard.

But it's fantastic. I love libraries. So the Widener Library, they were telling me it's the largest academic library in the whole world. The company of extraordinarily smart people, both teachers and students, from all over the world, that is something. How everything is online now, that was-- it took some getting used to. I could go on and on. But I won't.

Akshar.

Suddenly the mic seems heavy.

[LAUGHTER]

But there were many things which surprised me when I came here. So I came from Gujarat, [INAUDIBLE]. And over here, there were many new things.

But what remained the same-- the study, the studies which I was studying back there and here. Subjects have changed. But the way I'm studying it is almost the same, which is helping me, in fact. So I have studied Prasthanatrayi for 5 and 1/2 years. And now, I am here. I have taken five courses in this semester, and also, learning English because this is new for me.

So there are many resources over here, as Shreta-ji said. And generally, we don't used to go to the library and study. We used to study at our own place. But over here, there are many libraries. And I also started using the libraries and resources.

Also, expanding my horizons. So in Sarangpur, I was a student of Vedanta, so I studied the Upanishads, whereas over here, I'm taking a course with Professor Patel about Nyaya, which is completely new for me, not completely, but new for me.

And also, studying different perspective to study the same things which I have studied back in Sarangpur. I'm taking a course with Professor Clooney on the Upanishads. So I have studied it from the Swaminarayan perspective. Over here, I am studying it from many different perspectives.

And also, there are some subjects which surprises me most every class, theories and methods.

[LAUGHTER]

But yes, everything is going well.

[LAUGHTER]

[APPLAUSE]

So our speakers have not only been wonderful speakers but fairly brief. So we will continue until-- we have plenty of time. And I would just encourage you, ask a question if you have a specific question for one of our speakers or aiming it at all three. And try to be brief, and make sure there's a question mark at the end of your--

That's hard.

Who would like to ask a question first? Oh, yes. Please.

Three of you are representing different orders of Hindu philosophy and Hinduism. And one of the goal is achieving harmony and inner peace, and ultimately, realization. Do you feel all the years you've spent till now-- are you leaning towards that path. I'm not going to ask you that you've seen god. But do you feel-- are you in the right path and what all the audience can get from that?

Straight answer, yes. Not a day goes by without my feeling that yes, the path that I've chosen-- I don't mean just particularly my particular order of philosophy but the general spiritual path-- there is something really deep and very worthwhile, I would say the most worthwhile thing in all of human life.

And it's not just for monastics. Monastics are specialists. But it's for everybody. Everybody should be spiritual in whatever way they understand it.

And it's a journey. Over the years, this much I can say, that my understanding of what spirituality is, my understanding of what [INAUDIBLE] is, what the purpose of all of it is, this has just deepened over. And my appreciation for other paths has also deepened, definitely.

I would also say a definitive yes. I'm very early in my life as a monastic. But I have a tremendous faith in the teachings, but also the practices associated with those teachings. And I think the faith in those practices are very-- it's a very dear faith to me. I feel that, if anything, that's the one thing I would never want to compromise. And I think that's kind of the fuel behind-- that's the fuel for me to move forward on this path. So I would say yes, I do feel I'm getting closer only because there is I have a faith in the practice and the teachings.

For me, it seems that after I joined this faith from my heart, what I have experienced is that I'm getting a new perspective in my life. So for example, before, I was self-centered, thinking about myself. Harmony, unity, these worthy words, I was not practicing it, and so on.

But now, that when I have studied the scriptures, so I have the words with me, I also have somebody who is living it. And this [INAUDIBLE], this feeling, of getting near to everybody, it doesn't matter if it belongs to a different tradition or even different religion. It's something which is happening now.

Just to give you one example, this is default because my guru is such that-- Pramukh Swami Maharaj, you may have heard about APJ Abdul Kalam's name. APJ Abdul Kalam wrote books. And his last book was on Pramukh Swami Maharaj, entitled with Transcendence.

So the contrast is such that APJ Abdul Kalam is a Muslim following Islam. Pramukh Swami Maharaj is a guru from Hinduism, from Hindu faith. But still, there is a connection between them. The connection is such that the APJ Abdul Kalam writes in his book that Pramukh Swami Maharaj is my ultimate guru. So in a way, Pramukh Swami Maharaj didn't spoke English, and APJ Abdul Kalam didn't ready speak Gujarati. But there was a relation.

So we can see that through-- I have seen through my guru. And also I am experiencing it, that this studying this, and being in this faith and as a sadhu, I would reach towards my goal.

Wonderful. Thank you. Anybody have questions? Parimal, do you have a question. This is Professor Parimal Patil from the South Asia department.

I mean, having all three of you here is such a remarkable and wonderful opportunity for all of us, and also, I think, for Harvard and the Divinity School. It's really nice to hear that it's also been, at least so far, meaningful for all of you.

I'm curious as to-- you share with us something about your journey to becoming monastics I'm wondering what you'll share when you go back about this interlude at Harvard and being students.

You can go in any order. You don't have to go in the same order as last time.

It wasn't supposed to be a trick.

Yes, I've-- I would probably have a better answer at the completion of this fellowship. But right now, I feel what I would love to share with those back in Houston and other members that-- or not members, but people that I meet is that there are so many ways to look at one tradition. There are so many ways to look at one text. And there's something to gain from every single view, every single perspective, and that looking at something from--

And I feel that that's what's being done here is that so many different perspectives are brought into the readings of, let's say, the Upanishads or any other texts that when you're kind of-- in this case, this is one of the most difficult things, I feel, for me. And Swami-ji and I were talking about this the other day. But to kind of put myself in the other-- on the other side, and look at-- or in someone else's shoes and look at the Upanishads after having been marinated in one way of looking at it. It is difficult. But there's so much that I'm gaining from looking at things from a different perspective. And actually, a deeper appreciation for these great texts.

And so what I would take back is this openness to view these texts, and to be fearless in the things that you find out from different perspectives, and to not allow those things to feel that oh, well, now, I can't study because I know this now. No, I feel like it can enrich one's journey with these traditions. So that's what I would share. I don't know which way to go.

One of my brother monks said-- not to me, to somebody else-- oh, I know what's going to happen. He's going to go to Harvard. And next year, he's going to come back with loads of Harvard anecdotes, little stories which he'll talk about in the course of his talks. So that's already happening. I--

[LAUGHTER]

I gave a talk where? In San Jose just last week. I was talking about studying Tibetan Buddhism, the emptiness people, for three hours, from noon to 3:00 PM, with Professor Garfield, and then atman and brahman, and god and all the Upanishads with Professor Clooney from 3:00 PM to nearly 6:00 PM. So imagine the whiplash.

[LAUGHTER]

I'm glad you did the Buddhism first and then--

[LAUGHTER]

Yes. So I'll have loads to share, not only with people at large, but also with our organization, who will expect a feedback from me at the end of my experience in Harvard. It's going to be very positive feedback.

So your question was what I'm going to say after a year. But in fact, every weekend, I send a report at my place. So they are so much curious. Akshar, will you still wear a dhoti?

[LAUGHTER]

I said yes. And Akshar, are you going through all the readings? I say, I try.

So they are interested in many things. So they ask me question. Even if I don't have to say, if I don't want to say, they will ask me twisted question and they will ask me. So yes, there are many things which I'm learning from Harvard. I'm sharing it back. So after a year, there will be so many things, maybe a small book. Just kidding. But still, and there are many things at the end of the year I would imbibe in me.

So in fact, when I entered Harvard, I entered through that gate where it's written, "enter to grow in wisdom." and I'm currently gaining many things, learning many things.

For this semester, I am studying-- for the fall semester, I am studying Buddhism, in which I'm studying Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana. And in the next spring semester, I'm going to study Christianity and Judaism to get an holistic view on religion. So yes, full of wisdom.

Thank you. Let's see. How about some of the younger people in the back. So yes, sir.

So this is a complicated thing. IN a lot of religions, there's a concept that religion protects you from what are called marginal experiences. So if there's real traumas that you go through in your life, religion is able sort of stabilize you and help you continue living the good life. So do you feel like there are such experiences that you faced in your lives that have really led you down the monastic path? Or do you feel like you would have remained on the monastic path, had you not gone through the experiences that you have?

This is an interesting question. I've actually taught monastic novices for about eight years, so hundreds of young men who want to become monks. And I have asked them sometimes questions about what led them to become a monk. And the answers I get neatly fall into two categories. One is those who always wanted this life, a small group, but they always felt-- they didn't know much about monasticism maybe, but a spiritual life. And they couldn't think of anything else. And there is such a group.

The second group is those who were in school and college, just like everybody else, and then suddenly made a decision. And that sudden decision could have come from many reasons. It could be a sudden shock, a death, a loss, a kind of a trauma. Or it could be just something positive, having read something, met somebody, something like that.

Shri Ramakrishna used to say, whatever brings you to spiritual life, not just monastic life, spiritual life, it's like taking a bath into the holy river Ganga. You may get ready, and put on your swimming clothes, and go into the river. Or somebody may push you in, or you will slip and fall into it. The result is you get wet. So--

[LAUGHTER]

--that's the way I look at it. And after some time, it really doesn't matter. Whatever happened in the past which pushed you into this life, which inspired you, or made to take up this life as a refuge, you will bless that, good or bad. Whatever it happened, it brought you to this life. This life becomes important.

So people have asked the same question that you've asked in a much more blunt way to me. They'll see me and say, what happened?

[LAUGHTER]

So I would actually-- I totally would agree with how Swami-ji just answered the question in that it truly doesn't matter, in the sense, when one is in the tradition, and has found some meaning in it, and is continuing with it, then it truly doesn't matter so much where that came from.

But I will say that our-- I had heard early on that it is-- monasticism shouldn't be something where one is running away from the world, like, an escape from-- I can't handle the world, so now let me try. Then that question is valid, what happened?

But the idea that I had heard for so long was that it should be more of an inquiry into something deeper, that one has actually been very in touch with life, and has been very ambitious with life, has faced it head-on. And then further questions came up. And therefore, the, I guess, thirst for finding out something deeper came up. But yes, anyways, I have heard your question in much more blunt forms.

[LAUGHTER]

Akshar?

To me, I'm a new-- I'm like a novice. In fact, I'm a sadhak. So it happens many times that there is a high tide, low tide. There are some good situations and some bad.

So what I do in that kind of particular situation is there are two things-- shastra and my guru. Shastras are the scriptures which I have studied. Now, it's time for me to live what has been said in the scriptures.

So many times, I feel alone. I have many friends. In fact, I didn't have a Facebook account. I came here, and I started. There are 200 friends right now.

[LAUGHTER]

That's not the issue. But I used to stay with people, among people. Over here, it's different. So the Upanishads, the [INAUDIBLE] Upanishad, the very first verse says that [SANSKRIT]-- god is everywhere. Now, this was me who I have studied. In fact, I have taught this. But now, I have to apply on myself. So that is the first thing.

And then the second thing is guru. In the difficult situation, I can take guidance because they are the experts. And they know everything. They know everything about me. That's what I believe. So what happens to me is that many times I think that whether I will be able to do or not, I have many role models in front of me who have already done it. And I can even approach them and get this solution for it. So these were the two main things which I do, shasta and my guru, scriptures and my guru.

All right, the next-- yes, and they will keep going over this way. So yes, sir.

What are the greatest obstacles that you face or have to keep tabs on in your path to devotion?

What are the greatest obstacles? And you can go in any order you want.

Yeah, it's not always plain sailing. But most of the real obstacles are internal, not external. It's a wonderful environment. If one wants spiritual life, and wants monastic life, what better environment can there be than the monastery? Whichever order, tradition you have.

One advice I used to give to young novices who were just going to become monks was that-- or those who want to become monks. Yeah, so the people come to me and ask, I'm joining the order. I'm going to this ashram. I'm going to start my monastic life.

I say, first, burn your bridges. No going back, once you've made a decision. Before you made the decision, generally, the senior monks will say, don't become a monk. They want to see whether you're pushing hard.

One of my friends who is a doctor who became a monk, he said, the first day I went to the monastery, the senior monk in there in the monastery spent half an hour convincing me why I should not be a monk, and then asked me, what do you want to do now? He said, I want to be a monk. He said, good.

Then I say that you burn your bridges, absolutely no looking back now. Vivekananda saod, you have spent many lives doing many things. Give one life to god and see. And he said, even if it's going to be wasted, give one life to god. And then he says, with his characteristic rhetoric, it will not be wasted.

So yes, there are no problems outside, really. Most of them are inside. When we go in with the expectations that this is the way it will be, the ashram will be like this, the people will be like that, then you are in for trouble.

I remember when I first entered the order a powerful bit of advice, one of two things which have really helped me, all internal. One is the head of the monastery where I joined, the first day as a novice, 25 years ago, he said, look, you have come here looking at Shri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, [INAUDIBLE], they are your ideal. Not us. You keep your eyes on them throughout your life, one.

The next was, when I went in to do my first bit of work for the ashram, there was a school, teaching kids. And I was introduced by the senior monk there as this newcomer, who was a smart young man, qualified, and MBA, and all that sort of thing. And one of the teachers, who was a lay teacher, he said, oh, we are lucky to have him. And then the monk said something which I've carried till today. He said sharply, in front of everybody, no, he is lucky to be here. So these are some things which help you to power through the problems in monastic life.

So I agree. Our Swami-ji, during the course, had told us that when we come to the ashram, he told us, don't think that you've conquered everything, and now, you're in this little piece of heaven on Earth. And we all wondered what he meant by that. And then, within a few weeks, we understood fully what he meant by that.

And his idea was the same mind that we carried before the course is what we're carrying here into the ashram as well. And so if that mind was giving problems before the course, it's going to give the same problems during the course. The whole objective of studying is to learn to live with this mind and learn to live with it pleasantly. And that is where I think these internal sort of difficulties, or the challenge with that comes up, because it's a challenging task to deal with one's own mind.

And again, I can speak only for my two years of being a monastic, but-- or in training. I'm in training right now. But that is certainly the primary obstacle is the obstacle of our own mind.

Just as Swami-ji and Shreta-ji already described, the questions, the problems are not outside. They are inside. And as I am studying Theories and Methods, this is my argument. It should be followed by example.

So from the Bhagavad Gita, if we see, in the beginning of second chapter, the situation of religion is such that [SANSKRIT]. Arjun's eyes was filled with water, but that water had 0.3 mg salt, tears. So this was the situation of Arjun. And the very next mantras, in the ninth verse it comes that [SANSKRIT]. Arjun is crying, and Krishna is laughing.

So [INAUDIBLE], yesterday we were discussing this verse in the Dharma group, during [INAUDIBLE] course. Beautifully, [INAUDIBLE] writes, [SANSKRIT]. The situation was same. [SANSKRIT] Each idea, it was the same. [SANSKRIT] That is on the same battlefield, there is a contrast-- one is laughing, and one is crying. So this situation is not outside. It is inside.

And again, second example, Gita says, [SANSKRIT] mind is like [INAUDIBLE]. So it moves on. And there are ways to conquer it.

So in our tradition, we think about there are [INAUDIBLE] and [INAUDIBLE]. For [INAUDIBLE], we do physical austerities, doing fasting and other things. To conquer our mind, we think about the glory of god. And in this way, we can conquer.

I mean, this is what I am facing in daily life. Like, I have to wake up early in the morning. I don't like it. But--

[LAUGHTER]

If I [INAUDIBLE] I will like it, it will be the day I will wake up early in the morning, like, without any effort. But now, it's difficult for me. There are many difficulties. This was one example. But reflecting it on, taking it to yourself, it can be solved.

When Akshar came and was going around in his dhoti and sandals back in September, he said, it's getting little bit chilly here. So I told him, don't worry. It doesn't get any colder here.

[LAUGHTER]

Yes.

I think he'll run into another difficulty.

On this Friday, it is going to snow.

Yes, sir.

Namaste, Swami-ji, Swami-ni, and Sadhak-ji, and Professor Clooney for having such a lovely conversation with monastics. You're all marinated in the Upanishads, as you say. How do you find it in your own practice, being here, or being anywhere, in day-to day life, carrying the [INAUDIBLE] into daily feeling of unity consciousness? How is that doable, possible, given that you can get tangled up in the world?

It's a really good question. I remember reading a swami who is not of our order, a traditional monk in the Himalayas. In Hindi, he says, [SPEAKING HINDI]

So Vedanta is not for a wiping out the experience of the world, not for sitting with eyes closed in a mountain cave, and not experiencing the world, no. It makes you-- [HINDI] is a very difficult word to translate into English. Limitless, fearless, no resistance in the midst of all kinds of experiences.

Now, let me put that in practical terms, what it has meant for me. I can say this much, that I have lived in a monastery on the bank of the Ganga. I have lived teaching students in dorms and hostels. I have lived on mountain tops, actually, not literally in a cave, but in a hut, begging for my food, actually sleeping under a tree in the Himalayan mountainsides. And I have lived in Hollywood, Manhattan, and Harvard.

[LAUGHTER]

Though I was last week in Silicon Valley, and they took me down a notch. They said-- one of them said, all of that is nothing compared to Silicon Valley. So--

[LAUGHTER]

But what I can say is, you get a feeling of evenness in everything. So nothing is terrible or terribly bad. Nothing is all that fantastic either. You enjoy every situation. You see the good in it. And the bad and the difficult, you tend to overcome it. There is an internal if you remain centered in something much deeper than the individual, that's a great, great benefit.

One of the things, again, from the Vedanta course that I always remember is our Swami-ji you would tell us that when we're in the world never to think that it's, you know, I'm this Vedanta and against the world. We're very much part of the world. And it's this very world that, according to Vedanta, it's this world that we've misunderstood. And it's to understand it properly-- again, according to Vedanta. That's the goal. So to look at the world and feel that I have to run away from it, or it has a potential to do something to me, I think, would not be the most effective way of doing one's sadhana.

In fact, it's to be in the world, and to look around and say, well, how can I recalibrate my understanding in the same, very world, in the same very skin? And so to never really forget that, I think, is what is-- I mean, that has really stuck with me, when he told us that.

But agreed. I think the biggest thing that can happen is-- and so far, again, I'm just starting. But the biggest thing that can happen is forgetting that, that somehow, this world now has some special capacity to derail me because now, I know this, and my knowledge is going to go away somewhere. But I think just to constantly remember that that's not the case. I'm learning to live in this world in a much more informed way from a Vedanta tradition. That's all.

To me, my studies of the Vedanta, as well as my scriptures from my tradition, like with Swaminarayan, has helped me a lot. So for example, if you see one of the words from the Vedas is [SANSKRIT] Let the noble thoughts come from all the directions. So keeping this as a fundamental, as a cornerstone, if this is in the mind, then I am easily able to absorb many things.

Moreover, [INAUDIBLE] wrote, this has been said in a simple way in [INAUDIBLE] section, about taking [SANSKRIT]-- looking for the good things, positive things. And indeed, if I haven't studied Vedanta, then, definitely, I wouldn't have knowledge of Vedanta, and also other things. But now, if I have studied the Vedant, I'm trying to grasp the knowledge of Vedanta as well as also understanding and learning from other things. So it really helps. It enriches, in fact.

Oh, yes.

So I'm going to asked the flip side of the question Professor Patil asked, which is, what do you hope to take away. And my question is, what do you hope to leave behind? What do you hope to contribute to Harvard during your time here?

You've got to answer this one well.

[LAUGHTER]

Well, for example, this. But also, a presence, where-- so we are part of a very specialized monastic tradition, all of us. And this is new for Harvard. I tried to look at it from Harvard, on the Divinity School point of view. So just a presence in the class and the participation in the class, a new point of view in the class. So far, that's what we have seen. That's also helpful to think about subjects in-- from our particular point of view. And that's a contribution, I think.

One other thing we would bring, or we do bring is we are, first and foremost, practitioners of our tradition. And so the perspective, I guess, from a practitioner standpoint is something I hope would be useful in this kind of setting, about these texts that everyone learns in an academic setting with an academic's eye. I would hope that our different perspective can be enriching to that.

So I was just here to learn. And what can I give? I am a small person, probably the youngest in this room. But what happened was that, when I reflect back my eight weeks into this course, what I see is that there are many things which happened. So I just talked about this with Emily, that the dialogue which has started between the inter-religion..

So for example, many times, if somebody has questions on Hinduism, and people do have on campus, so they see me, and they will come to know that yes, he's definitely a Hindu. And they would approach me and ask the questions. And I try to even answer them, so a dialogue.

The second thing is that-- this is at a small level, but still, it makes a huge difference. So recently, the Gita study group started in Harvard. So this is a small group where anybody was interested in studying Gita can come. And [INAUDIBLE] Swami, Swami Sarvapriyananda-ji, and Shreta-ji, we take alternate turns, and we talk about the Bhagavad Gita. So if anybody wishes, then yes, there is an opportunity, and they can learn.

The other thing which I can leave behind is the impression of India. So generally, it is not seen from a good glance, from a good perspective. But I grew up there, and I have seen it. It so happened that I am here for a year. So I hope the main person from the office of student affairs say that Akshar, you are here just for a year, so you should go to other events.

And I went there and I saw that, yes, up to some extent, it is good. But now we are-- samples are here, three. [INAUDIBLE] So we can come to know that there is even a better thing footprints of India.

Thank you.

What Shreta-ji just said about practitioner, that sparked a thought. In the study of religion, the mainstream has been that you should not be a practitioner to maintain certain academic distance with the subject. And that makes sense. But just the opposite also makes sense.

I've always felt that unless you are an insider to a tradition, there a lot of things that you do not understand about the tradition. In fact, Swami Vivekananda was a little harsh on this. He said, to criticize a tradition from outside is just mischief.

So any tradition, the phenomenological insider approach, I think we need both, a scholar with the distance, an objective approach, but also, what are nowadays being called scholar-practitioners. And there is a growing movement that is very useful, I think.

I would agree.

This side, please, yes.

A very quick question. You showed us the pictures of your classes.

I think we need-- if you're in the front, we need you to speak very loud or use the microphone.

Thank you. Sorry. We have seen the pictures of your classes. So Swami [INAUDIBLE], we saw a lot of women. We didn't see any women here, and didn't see any women here. Is that purpose that women are not allowed there?

Yes and no. What you saw is the Ramakrishna Order, the monks. So they are all monks. They are-- it's an order entirely for men. And there is an order for women, but that's entirely for women. And that goes back to Swami Vivekananda's instructions, that the women's order should be run independently and entirely run by them. And that's being done. So that's how it works in our tradition.

So you saw the pictures right there, yes. So Swami Chinmayananda-ji was-- very much wanted women to be a part of the monastic tradition. And so he openly-- as I mentioned, he openly initiated women in the same way he would initiate a man into the tradition. I believe he was one of the first to start this. Of course, Swami Vivekananda-ji was doing it. But recently, he was definitely one of the first to start this. I'm here because he started this.

in this feminine tradition, as I have grown up, and as I have seen in it, there are two kind of [SANSKRIT]. The first one is [SANSKRIT], in which you approach to a guru. If not guru, then you can approach to your elders and get a [SANSKRIT] from it. And the second [SANSKRIT] is for the renunciates who would live their life as a sadhu.

So what happens is that-- [INAUDIBLE] wrote [SANSKRIT], notice that is what Bhagawan [INAUDIBLE] says, that [SANSKRIT] So it doesn't matter if you are a layperson or a sadhu. Soteriological implications, which we call [SANSKRIT], anybody can attain mukti. So in this way, there are two [SANSKRIT] in our [SANSKRIT], in which woman also can take [SANSKRIT]. Anybody can take [SANSKRIT]. And they are allowed in generally religious rituals, like doing puja, reading these holy scriptures, and also performing [SANSKRIT] with [SANSKRIT] and so on.

That's [INAUDIBLE]. In fact, in the United States, there is-- there are convents for nuns, the Vedanta nuns, in Hollywood, in Santa Barbara, and in San Francisco. I had to mention that. Otherwise, the nuns would never forgive me.

Speaking of which, I think all the questions have been from men so far. So we have about five or seven minutes left.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Yes, please. OK. And we can have one from over here then too. Please. Speak very loud or use the mic.

So for the woman monastics, when they are menstruating, can they participate in the pujas? Because I read, in some places-- I have a friend who was [INAUDIBLE], and she didn't even go on a temple for her faith for the first day because she was menstruating, because she read that you can't, and god doesn't even answer your prayers, and doesn't really acknowledge you when that's going on. So I just wanted to-- have you heard anything about that? Do you discuss it ever?

Could the question be repeated or paraphrased?

You could paraphrase it [INAUDIBLE].

The question was, to comment on whether it is OK for a woman who is menstruating to worship. Are there any implications of doing that? I think-- OK. I'll answer that question.

[LAUGHTER]

The-- so times have changed. And of course, thought changes with time. And so it is a question today that comes up. And I have talked to many women about this. I think it's a matter of personal preference. If one is comfortable, then continue. And if not, then don't.

As far as what's written and what's given in the texts, it's a matter of interpretation then, how one would like to interpret that in today's day and age. But I have always told people who have asked that it's up to them.

[INAUDIBLE]

Yes, please.

[INAUDIBLE] My name is [INAUDIBLE]. And I follow [INAUDIBLE]. So it's very interesting question you ask, and I think it's one of the most misinterpreted concepts for Hinduism. First of all, women were worshipped upon for millennia. And as far as menstruation is concerned, it was more to give women rest at the time, because our ancestors and women were working hard. They had to fetch water from far away and so many other menial chores. So this was a time for them to rest.

But I don't think it was ever said that this is not a time you can't pray, or god will not listen. That never happened. In fact, there are temples where [INAUDIBLE], the goddess, is menstruating.

That's right.

So I think we respect women so much that we even think that, look, we need to pamper then, and she needs rest, and she needs her own time. I think that's what it's about.

So I think we have time-- thank you very much. We have time for maybe one more question. Yes.

So I was wondering, Swami-ji, [INAUDIBLE]

Please speak really loud or get the mic. Could you come get--

Pass the mic.

This will be our last question.

If you can talk a little bit more, because you have spoken in class about it, about your experience in the Himalayas, just how that played into your journey, monastic journey.

All right, that will be a YouTube talk.

[LAUGHTER]

[INAUDIBLE] There's so many stories. But it's interesting. I just mentioned, she showed a picture of Swami Chinmayananda-ji sitting with Swami [INAUDIBLE] Maharaj. And I actually went there, exactly that spot. The cottage where Chinmayananda-ji would receive classes from [INAUDIBLE] Maharaj, that cottage has been beautifully maintained, and there is a very lifelike picture of [INAUDIBLE] Maharaj there, which I thought there was actually a living yogi sitting right there until I went closer and saw it was an oil painting. And I have many interesting stories about that too. But wait for the YouTube talk.

So I think then we'd better come to a close after a wonderful evening, and so many wonderful questions and wonderful thoughts. I would hope that this is only the beginning. It's only early November. Certainly, in the second semester, we can have another such panel, another such discussion, and maybe involve some of the other monastics at Harvard to join in the conversation.

Mary is here, one of the first Catholic nuns at Harvard Divinity School in half a century or more. But there's so many exciting-- with the Buddhist monks and others on the spiritual path to have further discussions, as well as with these three wonderful individuals.

We really lucked out when we had the applications, and brought in the names, and all that, sifted through them, to come up with three wonderful people who are so harmonious but also distinct and different from one another as well. So we're really lucky. Thanks to our speakers. And thanks to all for coming tonight.

[APPLAUSE]