I learned about Vedanta while traveling to Rishikesh about 10 years ago, during a stay at Ananda in the Himalayas, an Ayurvedic spa. Seal and Heidi Klum also were there, which was super weird and distracting, but not their fault. A swami held lecture classes each day. I had one-on-ones with him that changed my life, though I can’t remember a word he said. It was more about his being. Holy people can offer a gentle smile, and it can be transformative.
When the Ramakrishna Center in Irving opened, I became a friend and student of Brahmaprana, a refined, joyful Vedanta nun, who also likes a good laugh. My kind of holy person. Her gentle smiles are just as powerful. Here’s our conversation, which I felt needed to be mostly an explainer. But first, she offered a prayer.
I am guessing most of our readers know a bit about Hinduism, but less about Vedanta. Can you give us the Cliff’s Notes? Vedanta is a religion, a philosophy, and a way of life. Its highest teachings are found in the Vedas, the oldest living scriptures of the world.
Vedanta tells us: 1) God, or Brahman, is—both immanent and transcendent; 2) God can be realized; 3) our true nature is divine; 4) the goal of life is to make that knowledge our own; and 5) all major religions of the world are various paths leading to that one reality.
So how does it play into daily life? It sounds a bit out of reach for “normal” people. 🙂 Ha! The idea of “normal” is an illusion. This pandemic is not normal but it is our life now. Vedanta is very practical. It gives us four yogas, or practices, we can use throughout the day. Bhakti Yoga is the path of devotion: to seek union with God through prayer and worship. Karma Yoga is the path of action: to seek freedom by working as worship in a dedicated, unselfish, and detached spirit. Raja Yoga is the path of mind control and meditation. And Jnana Yoga is the path of knowledge – to penetrate the nature of reality through inquiry, analysis, and logic. Some people may focus on just one path, others may lean into one path more than others, but most people combine all four to their own taste. Meditation, though, is really the core – because without it we lose our inner compass.
You and your community are devotees of Sri Ramakrishna. So, Vedanta is a Hindu religion. And Sri Ramakrishna is…? Yes, I’m a sannyasini of the Ramakrishna Order of India. Sri Ramakrishna was a great Hindu mystic of India (1836–1886), who attained enlightenment. He also received the vision of Christ and honored Muhammed as well as the Sikh and Jain teachers. From his own realizations, he proclaimed, “As many people, so many paths to God.”
I was a student activist in the late 60s in California, looking for something real. Through Sri Ramakrishna’s life I found an open-ended, non-dogmatic philosophy that points to experience not creed. It’s universal in its acceptance of all religious traditions of the world and is appealing in its holistic blend of all the four yogas.
How would Sri Ramakrishna put this pandemic into perspective? People are hurting and no one can imagine what lies on the other side of this. Sri Ramakrishna would approach this pandemic from all levels. From the human level, when his own nephew Akshay died, Ramakrishna saw through vision how his soul had ascended from his body. But he missed him terribly, as though his own heart was being wrung like a wet towel. Ramakrishna then said, “If I feel this way, how much more so must lay devotees suffer at the death of their loved ones!” So we can all relate to Ramakrishna by the intense way he was able to experience human pain.
On the spiritual level, Ramakrishna was so in tune with the interconnectivity of all life that there was a time when he could not even bear to step on grass but would sidestep it to avoid hurting it!
But from the highest state of enlightenment, Ramakrishna saw this world as a dream – its impermanence. This is a spiritual truth we have all been forced to face these last few months when the lives of our family and friends were suddenly imperiled, and our own job, money, home, and future vanished in a flash. Ramakrishna used to say, “God alone is real; all else is unreal.” This isn’t pessimism; it’s a truth we all have the power to penetrate—especially when our backs are to the wall, as they are now. It’s suffering that gives us the spiritual impetus to peel away the layers of illusion that hide this reality. As Swami Vivekananda, disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, once said, “Tell me what you have suffered, and I will tell you how great you are.”
With suffering, there is an opportunity for us all to grow spiritually. As Vedantins we are taught to serve those who are suffering – not out of compassion but as the living god. That attitude behind selfless service elevates those who are served and brings joy to those who serve. In that way, karma yoga leads us and others out of suffering. No, the world does not change, but we do.
Any guidance on how should we deal with all of this uncertainty? This really is an opportunity. An open door. As we take up spiritual life and follow a routine of meditation, selfless service, and prayer, we begin to find meaning in life. Our internal life sustains us and begins to reconfigure the way we see ourselves and the world around us—so that even in the midst of calamity we don’t lose our balance or lose sight of the most precious treasure within ourselves and others. No one, and nothing can take that treasure from us.
Pravrajika Brahmaprana is a nun in the Vedanta Hindu tradition. She serves a community in Irving, the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of North Texas.