Swami Vidyatmananda: The Making of a Devotee
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I am at Saas-Fee once more, or as I prefer to call this Swiss village honored by Swami Vivekananda's presence more than ninety years ago, Mayavati West. We are in mid-January, 1993. A short while ago I passed the Grand Hotel where Swamiji stayed for two weeks in August, 1896, stared up at the windows facing the mountains and the glaciers, and imagined him looking out from one of those windows, relaxed, happy, and exalted. I climbed down the Chapel Walk bordered by its wayside shrines in which nearly full-size manikins portray episodes from the life and death of Christ, and entered the Chapel Hohen Stiege. Kneeling there before the Virgin erect on her baroque altar, the Child in her arms, I saw in memory once again Mrs. Sevier coming in and laying on that very altar Swamiji's offering of wildflowers, given to the Mother in thanksgiving for having saved him from a fall over the cliff which borders the Chapel Walk.

Here where I feel Swamiji's presence so keenly I have completed this book. In the clear light of his compassionate face I have gone through the text again, checking facts, smoothing out the language, reappraising the author's motives, re-evaluating his honesty. Have I done well? Is the result something I can offer to my guru, to my gurubais, to Swamiji, to Sri Ramakrishna? A fairly firm Yes.

This morning before dawn, looking out across the sleeping, snowy village to the high Alps luminous in the moonglow, I asked myself: "Has my appearance on this earth been of any value; will my absence make any difference?" One takes this sort of inventory at my age. I think not. It would be to claim too much to believe that one's presence "here below" had had much effect on anyone else. Existence's principal value is for oneself; one is granted these brief stopovers in this vale of tears, in this mansion of mirth, for the personal evolutionary opportunities they afford.

Did it work? The Making of a Devotee is an account of the decision which I made forty-five years ago, of why I made it, and of what followed. I took that decision because I felt I must try to modify the direction in which I was going, to change a way of life I had become convinced was untenable. From the vantage point of 1993 can I say that what I hoped to achieve when I said good-bye to "all that" and crossed the Great Divide to Vedanta produced what I hoped it might? A fairly firm Yes.

A famous passage in the Seventh Dialogue of the Bhagavad-Gita states that there are four main motivations which incline men to religion, or more accurately, that men, finding themselves in one or the other of four different situations, turn to religion: the person in distress; the man intent on seeking wisdom; the hungerer after earthly happiness; and the man endowed with spiritual discrimination.

It is perfectly clear to which category I belong. I was never the second type, whom we may think of as a naturally religious person bent on ferreting out the secrets of the spirit. I was not motivated by a wish to obtain fame, fortune, or sense enjoyments (the third type) as are those who practice a religion of success. It is equally clear that I was never a mystic, drawn to God for God's sake, for love of God, as are those belonging to the fourth class. No, I was clearly a member of the first category — the least admirable. I was scared. My motivation was compounded of ninety per cent self-interest and about ten per cent nostalgia for Wholesomeness. I was looking for an insurance policy, a lifeboat, an escape route — something to get me through the spate of life which remained to me, and painlessly past the demise which was bound to come. Dialogue Seven states it brutally: "Men take refuge in me to escape the fear of old age and death."

There seemed only one way to do this, and that was to become a devotee, whose ups and downs this book has tried to depict. Did it work? Have I then made good use of the years allowed me? Have I somehow made it at least part way from darkness to light, from death to immortality? As I say, a fairly firm Yes. Not because of any spectacular personal enterprise, but because a kindly force threw so many useful chances my way. Now at last I would know what to say were I back in Lansing, Michigan, at the First Methodist Church, and were asked to stand up and give my testimony.

It is now seven years since I lost Chris, Amiya, and my first friend, Joe Cherwinski, and longer years since I lost so many others. I recall a tender remark of Sri Sarada Devi's which Swami Prabhavananda liked to quote: "Premananda has died, So-and-So has died, So-and-So has died; I must be very old." This is my situation.

It is difficult to imagine being dead. I have loved this life, so filled with beauty and punctuated by surprises. I am loath to depart. As to the hereafter, I have absolutely no opinion. Shall I retain some semblance of this personality after death, or at least a souvenir of who I was? That is to say, shall I remember that I was a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda, a friend of Vivekananda, and a devotee? Shall I see again and compare notes with my "loved ones" — so many of whom have been named in these pages? But Sri Ramakrishna's promise was that those who have come "here" (to him), for them this is their last life. This statement leaves me in a quandary. If there is no further life, then what is there? A state of no "this", no "is", and no "their"? Probably, but that's absurdly hard to imagine and somehow not very appealing. On the other hand, I feel sure that God is a gentleman, and when I arrive in his domain will deal with this guest graciously — if for no other reason because the tenets of Eastern hospitality, demand it. On this saucy note — as is my wont — I desist.

I suddenly think of Ujjvala, of something she recalled from her days with Vivekananda in 1900. In one of his lectures Swamiji said, "If a bad time comes, what of that? The pendulum must swing back to the other side. But that is no better. The thing to do is to stop it." Then he uttered the American expression which children used to use when swinging, when they would stop pumping and let the swing slow down to a halt: "Let the old cat die." Yes, so many years of pumping, up and down, forward and backward, excited, perspiration on the forehead, trying to make my swing go higher than that of the other kids! Only a play, which seemed so important. But now the supper bell is ringing. Am I willing to stop pumping and let the old cat die? Will Swamiji be there to help me alight? Once again, a fairly firm Yes.

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