Sister Devamata went to India in 1909, when the sight of a sincere and reverential white face approaching a Hindu temple was rare enough to elicit special attention and privileges not shown to the numerous pilgrims of today. She spent almost two years under the intimate guidance of a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. She lived in close contact with Holy Mother, Swami Brahmananda, and their sacred spiritual circle, who all treated her with affection and solicitude, for had she not crossed the seas out of respect and gratitude for India’s wisdom? She witnessed and chronicled the religious life of India, partaking of it all with a keen eye and an appreciative and sensitive heart. Thus, her account is more than a travelogue; it is a spiritual diary replete with the spontaneous and pregnant comments of the great ones whose presence she avidly absorbed.
Born of an aristocratic American family in Ohio, Devamata was formerly known as Laura Glenn. A woman of many accomplishments, she found in Indian philosophy the answers to her searching spirit. Swami Vivekananda introduced Vedanta to her during his 1899 visit in New York. She joined the newly-founded Vedanta Society there.
In December, 1906, Vivekananda’ youngest disciple, Swami Paramananda, came to America and shortly thereafter founded the Vedanta Centre of Boston. Devamata recognized him as her guru, and became his first disciple. In 1909, Paramananda invested her with the religious mantle and made her the head of his fledgling monastic community in Boston. Later, when Paramananda founded the Ananda Ashrama, in La Crescenta, California, Devamata assumed the same position there, inspiring everyone by her single-minded devotion to the Swami and his work.
Practically all of Devamata’s literary works were written after she miraculously survived a fatal illness in 1922. Although handicapped physically, she moved about with an unabated zeal for the practices of spiritual life, attending both the daily worship and the public services regularly with an amazing punctuality.
Early in Sister Devamata’s association with Vedanta she had been given the task of editing Swami Vivekananda’s lectures, essays on yoga, and other works, to put them into book form. Later she performed the same task for Swami Paramananda, editing his lectures and letters for publication. Almost all the books that bear his name are the result of her efforts. An octogenarian. she passed away in 1942.
The vision of India Devamata portrays is the country’s past. The personalities to whom she pays homage played a vital part in influencing the religious life of that land. In spite of the momentous changes that have swept over India during this century, spiritually it is the same. The secular state does not affect the inner life of the people, to whom religion is still the pivot of their existence. To see today’s India through our Sister’s eyes is to witness what the Upanishads call “the Eternal among the changing.”
We hope that this new edition of Days in an Indian Monastery will enable the seekers of today to share the experience and inspiration of Devamata’s unique Indian sojourn.
The Monastery around which cluster the larger part of the memories recorded in these pages is at Mylapore, a beautiful suburb of Madras, in South India. Day after day I sat in the dim monastery hail at the evening hour listening to the swaying voice of a great soul. What I heard was simply spoken, but it engraved itself so indelibly on my mind that often when I crossed the road to my dwelling at nine, eleven o’clock still found me be side my flickering candle writing out what had been told me.
After I had filled several notebooks I let Swami Ramakrishnananda know of them and he asked me to bring them to him. The following afternoon he met me with the question: “Sister, how did you do it? As I read your notes I felt that I was speaking.”
This commendation planted the seed of a new thought,—to interweave this teaching with my other Indian experience and call the volume “Days in an Indian Monastery.” As we were driving into the city where the Swami was to lecture, I revealed my plan. He turned to me in the carriage, his face lighted by a radiant smile, and said: “That will be splendid, Sister, and you are just the one to do it.”
By these words he laid a sacred task in my hands. I accepted it humbly. Now it attains fulfilment. With grateful heart has it been accomplished
My life in India brought me in close daily association with some of India’s mightiest spiritual Teachers. It was lived under the protection and guidance of one of her greatest religious organizations. These blessings seem too rich to garner and hide away in one small memory. I therefore offer these reminiscences to the world with the prayerful hope that what I have set down in devout reverence and gratitude may create a wider understanding and a deeper sense of kinship between East and West.
I went to India as a member of the Order of Ramakrishna, a remarkable non-sectarian religious organization which in its methods and ideals strives to unite East and West, ancient and modern, action and meditation, philanthropy and sell-help, broad catholicity and one-pointed devotion to a chosen Ideal. It teaches that the form of faith is of minor importance; the vital concern is practice—living, not mere believing. It advocates inwardness and meditation as the preparatory means, service to mankind as the end.
Relief work forms a very large part of its activities. If flood cuts off a district and boats are not available, its members swim to the isolated places distributing food. If drought destroys the harvest, they dig irrigating canals, plough and plant and put the farmer on his feet again. If earthquake ravages a village, they rebuild and replenish it. If famine or disease weakens and afflicts, they feed and clothe, nurse and heal.
They maintain a number of “Homes of Service” where they care for the sick and suffering. They also carry help into the obscure lodging and the humble dwelling. They come to the aid of the aged, the dying and the dead. So efficient is their philanthropic work that the government turns over whole stricken areas to them together with the necessary funds with which to relieve the distress.
The Order has also a number of educational institutions,—day schools and night schools, libraries, reading rooms, an industrial school for orphaned boys and girls and an agricultural training farm. At this farm, work and study go hand in hand and the scholars may be seen in the fields with their books, sitting in a circle round the teacher, while the cattle they are tending graze in a larger circle round the scholars. In connection with this branch of work is a special night school for men and women of the neighbourhood who during daylight hours labor in the field.
The Order has monasteries at Calcutta, Benares, Madras, Bangalore, Bombay, Vrindavan and in other places. Here the workers receive training in the life of action and the life of meditation. As soon as they are considered fit, they are put into practical service—in charitable work, in publishing or in lecturing and teaching. The task is allotted according to the aptitude. The Order numbers five hundred monks and it has likewise a less numerous Sisterhood, but the work for women by women is in process of extensive development and promises to become one of the most salient features of the general work of the Order.
Around this dual religious body and looking to it for guidance and impulsion is a large lay organization known as the Ramakrishna Mission; called that, not because it is a missionary movement, but because it has the avowed mission of consecrated service to humanity. Whenever the monastic workers need a larger band of helpers in their relief work, they call upon these lay householder members to assist them, either directly by cooperation in alleviating suffering or indirectly by providing foodstuffs and money for the sufferers.
The Order bears the name of its founder, Sri Ramakrishna, a great spiritual Light of India during the last century. Much will be said of him in the pages which follow. Some confusion may result from the frequent recurrence of the same name in another form. Sri Ramakrishna is the Master; Swami Ramakrishnananda is the disciple, who was given the Master’s name because of his ardent devotion. “Sri” means “revered, Swami” means “spiritual teacher.” Sri Ramakrishna is sometimes spoken of as Gurumaharaj, the “King Master;” or as Thakur, “Lord;” also as Paramahamsa, “illumined soul.
I have tried not to multiply foreign words, but it was not possible to eliminate them altogether without dimming the local color and destroying the atmosphere. When I quote the words of others, 1 give them as they were spoken that they may reflect more vividly the personality behind. My use of terms may seem at times unaccustomed. I have adopted the word “Indian” in place of Hindu,” because the name “Hindu” was fixed upon the people by foreign conquerors and is not indigenous to the soil of India. Some vowels in the foreign terms should be accented, but such precision was not possible on an English press. I have sought to leave nothing strange unexplained.
One must always remember that India is more a continent than a country. Customs, language, dress, vary from province to province; even the religious forms, the music, the manner of singing and dancing, of playing and praying show certain variations. The basic tenets of faith and the Scriptures are common to all, except of course to Mohammedans, Parsees and converts. My experience was chiefly with South India and Bengal, but in telling of customs and manner of living I have striven to present what was fundamental and more or less universal, that a larger outlook may be gained on Indian life and thought as a whole.
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