“Notes of a Pilgrim”
New York City, March 31, 1971, written to family members. Words in italics were written later.
I think I sent you all cards from south India. Anyone going to India should try to see some of the South. It is perhaps the most Indian part of India, the part least affected by Muslim rule. Most of the large, old Hindu temples are in the South.
There are two very important temples in Chennai, one to Shiva and one to Krishna. The Shiva temple is quite near the Ramakrishna Math. In fact, I was told that the Math was built on property previously owned by the temple. At both temples I was refused entrance; being white and foreign, I was automatically considered non-Hindu. As a Vedantist and a devotee of Ramakrishna and the Bhagavad Gita, I considered myself Hindu. I knew there were historical reasons for barring non-Hindus from temples and was not overly upset. In fact, it occurred to me that it was probably good for a white boy like me to experience racial discrimination. Indians have protested my description of this as racial discrimination, but in fact any Indian Muslim or Christian can pass for Hindu and enter any temple.
In the process of being refused entrance, I learned something that helped me understand temple worship. The Math sent a Ramakrishna devotee with me to visit the Krishna temple. This temple is dedicated to Krishna as teacher of Arjuna, and so relates to the Bhagavad Gita, my favorite scripture. My devotee companion argued with the temple authorities for 45 minutes, trying to persuade them to let me enter, but without success. Though they were speaking in Tamil, now and then the devotee said in English, “He wants to have darshan of the Lord.” In other words, I wanted to see the image in the inner sanctum. After some time it dawned on me that seeing the image is a symbol of having the vision of God. This is why people go to temples. They go not to participate in a group religious service, but as individuals eager to see the divine image. With this understanding, I thought, “Maybe I am not yet ready to see the Lord.” I purchased a painting of the image, and I keep this in my personal shrine.
At the Chennai Math, I heard Vedic chanting for the first time. As I came toward the shrine in the early morning, I heard the rhythmic intonation and was charmed. In the courtyard below and outside the shrine, an elderly devotee named Anna was leading several novices in chanting verses from the Upanishads and the Gita. Sanskrit chanting has a vigor and rhythmic precision quite unlike the gentle flow of Gregorian chant.
Faux-pas No. 2. As at all temples and monasteries, vesper services are held every evening at sunset. I was already familiar with the traditional hymns sung in Ramakrishna ashrams. In the nearly full worship hall at the Chennai Math, I saw an empty space and sat down. Then someone motioned to me to come over and sit near the swami leading the music. I thought, how nice, I’ve been asked to sit near the musician swami. The next day the same thing happened. Then I realized that I had unwittingly sat in the women’s section. Men and women sit separately during group worship. I was also off guard by seeing a young boy sitting in the women’s section.
During the several days I stayed at the Chennai Math, the birthday of Swami Brahmananda, the guru of my guru and a disciple of Ramakrishna, was celebrated. A five-hour ritual was performed in the morning. I was quite impressed by the concentration and endurance of the brahmachari who performed the worship. He remained in his seat on the marble floor for the entire service.
It was on this day that I first met Swami Tathagatananda, who would arrive in New York 6 years later to serve assistant to Swami Pavitrananda, and later that year would become head of the Center after Swami Pavitrananda passed away. Since I was not used to eating with my hands, it took me longer than others to finish my meals. Mealtime conversation seems to be less common in India than in the West, and the monks would eat quickly and leave the dining hall. Swami Tathagatananda, who was in charge of the Ramakrishna Mission Students’ Home in Madras, had come to the Math for the celebration. He stayed and talked with me till I finished my meal. So we became acquainted. Neither of us dreamed that we would later live together in New York for 36 years!
After three days and nights in Madras, I flew to Madurai, southwest and inland from Madras. From the plane one gets a delightful view of rice fields dotted with occasional temples.
The most fabulous temple I saw was the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, a temple to God as Mother. I was told that it was built over a period of 6 centuries, from the 8th to the 14th. [Wikipedia: The temple forms the heart and lifeline of the 2,500 year old city of Madurai and is a significant symbol for the Tamil people, mentioned since antiquity in Tamil literature, though the present structure was built between 1623 and 1655 CE.] It contains some of the finest extant sculpture in India. I was able to enter the temple without difficulty. I had wanted to visit this temple because my guru’s guru had seen the living Divine Mother in the image. The young man who showed me around (a devotee of Ramakrishna whose older brother, a dentist in Madras, had given me a letter of introduction to him) is an artist by avocation, and very knowledgeable about the temple. Another nice thing about the South, from our standpoint, is that English is very widely spoken.
I was really sorry that my young friend paid for his hospitality by having a tire stolen from his motorcycle while we were inside the temple.
Indians are very nice about entertaining and accommodating guests without prior warning. This young man took me to the home of another devotee, to whom I also had a letter of introduction. He is a cloth merchant, with wife and college-age son. Very nice people. I was glad to have the experience of staying with a family one night. Actually, the letters of introduction were never read. I only had to say that I was a devotee of the Ramakrishna movement to be accepted as a member of the family. I really felt all over India that the monks and devotees were my own relatives.
The next morning I left by taxi for Kodaikanal, 7,000 feet above sea level, for a three-day visit with an American friend and fellow disciple. In those years taxi travel in India was very inexpensive. I travelled altogether 1500 miles by taxi for only $200! This had to do with unequal exchange rates. Kodaikanal is quite scenic, with a beautiful lake and waterfalls. It is famous for an astronomical observatory that lies on the magnetic equator. A friendly young scientist showed us around the observatory.
Returning to Madurai, I flew on directly to Trivandrum, on the west coast in the state of Kerala. It is an attractive, medium-size city, and serves as a takeoff point for pilgrims visiting the Vivekananda Rock Memorial Temple at Kanyakumari, the southern tip of India. The swami in charge of the Trivandrum Ramakrishna Center was full of enthusiasm that I would be visiting Kanyakumari. His face glowed as he talked about the significance of Swami Vivekananda’s visit there in 1892. After traveling throughout India and feeling intensely for the suffering of the people, Vivekananda swam out to a rock about a quarter mile from the shore and meditated for three days and nights. It was there that his mission became clear to him.
Seeing the new Vivekananda Rock Memorial Temple at the southern tip of India was one of my finest experiences. I was extremely happy to see how perfectly it has been done. It is really an impressive sight, rising out of the sea on a rock several hundred yards from the mainland.
The temple had just been completed a few months before I visited, and I was fortunate to meet Sri Eknath Ranade, the conceiver and moving force behind the Memorial. I was struck by his modesty. See http://rockmemorial.org/]
While I was in Trivandrum a friendly young swami was appointed to be my guide. In addition to accompanying me to Kanyakumari, he took me to the famous Padmanabhan temple, which features an 18-foot reclining image of Vishnu. In Kerala temples, men are not permitted to wear stitched garments. Many go bare from the waist up, although a shawl is permitted. The young swami got me into the temple without difficulty. He also climbed a tree to pick a fresh cocoanut for me. I don’t imagine many people have had a swami climb a tree to pick a cocoanut for them! Kerala means Land of Cocoanuts. Probably most boys in Kerala learn how to climb trees for cocoanuts as they grow up.