Updated: Nov 3, 2018
When the Indian monk Swami Vivekananda arrived in America in 1893 and delivered his address to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, he did this with full knowledge of how much his teaching would resonate with the audience. He was there as a delegate representing Hinduism and he spoke of the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, a nondual philosophy about 2500 thousand years old. His address was well received and shortly after the meeting concluded Vivekananda visited Memphis, Minnesota, Detroit and New York among other cities where he was universally welcomed.
A year later, on the 16th May 1894 Vivekananda gave a lecture at Harvard University and later the same year established the Vedanta Society of New York. This was the first overseas mission of the Monastic Order of Ramakrishna, named after Vivekananda’s teacher, the great mystic of 19th century India, Paramahansa Ramakrishna.
Vivekananda rented two rooms on 54 West 33rd Street in central Manhattan. During his time in America, he took the opportunity to visit other countries including the United Kingdom. Although he practiced and taught the four yogic paths to spiritual self-realisation (Bhakti, Karma, Jnana and Raja Yoga) his passion was for the path of knowledge, Jnana Yoga through the teaching of Advaita Vedanta.
Although having its origins in Hinduism, Vivekananda taught that Advaita Vedanta was primordial knowledge, the Truth that existed before man had even evolved in the universe and created divisions through religion. He believed that even if a core of a population were to realise their true nature through these teachings, it could dramatically affect the landscape of consciousness for the whole society. He went on to write “Advaita Vedanta – A Scientific Religion’ although he did not consider it a religion per se.
Vivekananda returned to India in 1897 handing over the running of the mission to Swami Abhedananda. Through Abhedananda’s efforts the society underwent significant restructuring and he was later successful in having it incorporated under New York State law. Abhedananda served as the president until 1921. The New York headquarters moved to 34 West 71st Street in Manhattan where it has been based since.
From 1921 to 1976 there were 6 presidents of the society; the last president, Swami Talhagatanada died on the 25th June 2016. On the 6th January 2017, Swami Sarvapriyananda was appointed as minister and spiritual leader for the Vedanta Society of New York. Sarvapriyananda has significantly raised the profile of the mission and Advaita Vedanta in general through the spread of his teachings on social media. His lectures on the translation of the nondual text, the Drg Drisya Viveka (Of the Nature of the Seer and the Seen, see lecture one here) have had tens of thousands of views on YouTube. He has entered mainstream culture, debating Vedanta with Deepak Chopra (watch here) and has been interviewed by Rick Archer for the popular spiritual interview show ‘Buddha at the Gas Pump’ (watch interview here).
Sarvapriyananda is one of the highest profile monks of the Ramakrishna mission and he delivers the non-dual teachings of Advaita Vedanta beautifully to a secular audience as well as catering for followers of more dualistic Hindu traditions.
Swami Sarvapriyananda is one of a handful of people I’ve been so absorbed by that a whole day passed as I watched his lectures, I think I underwent a significant unpicking of conscious conditioning. Through the translation of the ancient teachings of the Drg Drisya Viveka, one learns to appreciate the nature of experience and the conscious processes they result from.
For those interested in pure Advaita Vedanta teaching, I strongly recommend these lectures as an introduction to nonduality. If it doesn’t resonate with you, you will switch off within ten minutes. If, however, like me, these lectures make you feel like someone coming out of amnesia and remembering something crucially important you’d forgotten; I have no doubts you’ll have a marathon YouTube session.
Article by Vikas Pandey
Photography by Alexander Pandey