Friday, January 18, 2008

Evening with Swami Veda Bharati

Last night, Swami called up the entire ashram to come up and listen while he gave a radio interview to Janet Bray Attwood, the author of The Passion Test, one of those self-help publishing phenoms that spring into the forefront every now and then. She is apparently doing a series of interviews with spiritual leaders and gurus.

Funnily enough, just the other day, a priest from Kerala, Father Thomas, who is doing his PhD in Minneapolis, also came with a similar mission. He has been tracking down various spiritual leaders to ask them questions on particular subjects related to their spiritual experience.

Swamiji's radio interview was very good. He led a five minute meditation session in his inimitable manner, but it was immediately clear why he had the entire ashram present. As soon as he began, everyone went into trance (may as well call it that) and it made his presentation of the meditation very powerful. It is a simple procedure really, simply concentrating on the breath and chanting the mantra, but his voice and manner make a huge effect. His answers to her questions, which we did not hear, were also simple and clear.

Afterwards, Swamiji insisted that I eat with him. There were only three of us, included Swami Ritavan, an American who is currently in charge of the Minneapolis center. After I made some observations about Swamiji's interview, Pyare (Pierre, also from Montreal), joked that every public lecture Swamiji gave was always the same. He said, "You always start by asking to be reminded of the topic you are supposed to be speaking on, and then you lead a meditation."

This led somehow into Swamiji talking about his early life. His purvashram name was Usharbudh Arya. The last name is indicative of his Arya Samaj upbringing. Actually, his father was a bit of an Arya Samaj fanatic and when he saw the potential his son had for study, gave up all his worldly commitments and cut himself from his entire family in order to dedicate himself exclusively to his son's education. Usharbudh was only four at the time. Within a short time, though, he was showing that he was indeed a child prodigy. He gave his first public lecture on the Yoga Sutras at the age of nine. But his speciality was the Vedas.

He told us the story last night of what he considers to be the real anniversary of his "teaching" career. By the time he was 13, he had already been conducting fire sacrifices, a prominent part of the Arya Samaj ritual, for some time. He had learned the four Vedas so well that he practically knew them by heart. That year, 1947, he was actually invited to conduct an Agnihotra sacrifice in Rishikesh, for which he was placed on the seat of Brahma, as chief priest. When the brahman and sannyasi elders saw that a young boy of 13 was given the place of honor, they challenged him. "To sit on this seat, you must know the four Vedas. Do you?" "Yes," he answered. "Along with the meanings?" "Yes."

Swamiji then offered to open the volume before him on any page and explain any verse, according to its adhibhautika, adhidaivika or adhyatmika interpretation. And with that started two days of intense examination. Finally, after he had explained the root of the word shishna (male organ) as coming from the root sna (to bathe), he was challenged by a pandit who had himself published a translation and commentary on Yaska's Nirukti, the Vedic dictionary. The pandit said that such a derivation was impossible (with some justification), but the young prodigy came back with the answer, "But Panditji, in your own book, on such and such a page, you have given this very derivation yourself! How can you challenge me?" And with that, his examination was over.

After that he began to get invitations to lecture all over northern India. Nevertheless, Swamiji said, his father did not trust him and before every public speaking engagement, insisted that he study, and he himself would give him copious notes to examine. But when the time came to sit on the asan, he said with a laugh, he would just open the book and say whatever came to his mind. There was no disappointment in his audiences, but his father was not pleased.

I asked how it came about that he left his father. Though I did not get any details, Swamiji says that hïs father was too controlling and he finally ran away when he was sixteen. This was, he said, recognized as appropriate by those who knew the two of them well. Nevertheless, in order to make the space between him and his father sufficient, he accepted an offer to serve as an Arya Samaj missionary in Guyana, South America, where there is a sizable Indian diaspora. He was only 18.

From there the conversation led into a discussion of child saints in India, starting with Shukadeva. Apparently the place where Shukadeva first spoke the Bhagavatam is not too far from here, on the way to Delhi.

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