Swami Vivekananda 150th Birth Anniversary – Panel Discussion

Yoga Bharati members attended the150th anniversary of the birth of Swami Vivekananda organized by San Francisco Vedanta Society. It was a daylong unique free event at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater, San Francisco, on Saturday, February 23, 2013

A lively panel discussion about “Yoga and the American Quest for Freedom” was conducted in the morning. The panel was hosted by Michael Krasny (Host of KQED’s Forum). Other speakers were – Jacob Needleman (Professor of Philosophy, San Francisco State University), Ann Louise Bardach (Journalist, Writer-at-Large for Newsweek Global/The Daily Beast, currently writing a book about Swami Vivekananda) and Swami Tattwamayananda (Vedic Scholar and Teacher).  In the afternoon was Freedom: The Song of the Soul ~ A Multimedia Presentation covering the fascinating and inspiring life and teachings of Swami Vivekananda in a captivating presentation, weaving together his words, photos and live music.  Prof Linda Hess explained Kabir’s philosophy and provided samples of his music to the audience.

Michael Krasny  (host and introductory talk)

Quest for freedom is integral to American thinking. The landscape of psychology has gone through dramatic changes to put it mildly and a lot of it is due to not just Vivekaanda but also due to the influence of yoga. Thanks to Vivekananda –  assimilation, absorption and acceptance of many of the teachings of the East that are with us now. Vivekananda was a global figure, addressed parliament of world religions, a figure that enabled American freedom in the sense of religion to a much greater degree. America is the nation that has always wanted to break the shackles of religious oppression. The immigrants came here to find religious freedom. We can take on the pride that religious freedom has taken on a multi-dimensional sphere of influence that can’t be denied. When you are practicing yoga and when you see all those young people who say they are spiritual, but not religious or when you see those who are looking for transcendence without knowing where that quest will lead them, lot of it seems to be to confabulate in ways that it points to the east and to the influence of yoga Spirituality is a way of finding out truth; in fact, much of what yoga is, in aesthetic sense and in intellectual sense is the search of truth.

Yoga is something we use to keep us in shape, and many of us use yoga to combine holistic approach to life; of feeling the greater sense of being centered. What fascinates me in terms of psychology is the expansion of consciousness and the expansion of thought that has been not be so coincidental and certainly been the output under the influence of the East and particularly under the influence of figures of Vivekananda. I also want to talk about the search and transcendence as often involving in the search for selflessness and service. This also is rooted in teachings of the yogis and yoga ideals. I have been teaching at the Esslin institute for many years now. The idea of yoga connected with liberation is simply customary in places like Esslin. The ideals of many people who say we want to do something to de-emphasize the self, to practice compassion, that helps the planet, something that ameliorate the suffering; in many ways these are related to the higher ideals of the yogis. Yoga is a practice of not only body but mind and spirit. The ideal of bringing the body, mind and spirit together regardless of the religion is something connected to the ancient yogis. You can be an agnostic or atheist and still be looking for this path, looking for something transcendent and something that gives life meaning and it is all tied to the ancient wisdom of yogis. The ideal of being in the quest of truth has always been a part of American freedom and has become a wedding between East and West. Although yoga as taught here in the West is different from what is taught in the East, so much has been absorbed, assimilated and accepted that  we can call it the wisdom of the hear. This is a psychology that goes with the wisdom of the heart; the psychology that releases us from the bondage of the Self from the bondage of oppression, that has to do with finding a calling.

The idea of mindfulness, the idea of an alliance to freedom is yoga; it teaches the value of breath as a gift of life, the global reach of this wisdom is what we see in the heterogeneous audience here. Yoga provides a kind of freedom; meditation as a practice has shown to be valuable in breaking addictions, coming out of jail and inner freedom. Yoga frees you, not necessarily from the disease or from afflictions, but we certainly know now that it helps a great degree with improving the immune system and with health and there can be freedom from suffering; Immuno-psychologist Mario Martinez who works with centenarians said there is definitely a relation between joy and living a long life even more than you would imagine the links are to the food you eat or the kind of genetics you have. Joy is central to this whole schema. This means a great deal in terms of how long you live and what kind of life you live. The whole counterculture movement has become wedded to yogi teachings and they are in essence the teachings about liberation, it seems to me the greater desire in making this a better planet is to free ourselves from the kind of bondage we may be in. With modern technology, we are heading towards greater freedom in so many ways that we cannot imagine, but the kind of freedom we are going to enjoy still goes back to the ancient yogis.

What is the meaning of freedom in America?

– Talk by Dr. Needleman

This is an interesting opportunity to understand or revisit a question that arises in many of our minds. What is the meaning of freedom in America?

I once gave a talk in Boston on the birthday of Ralph Waldo Emerson and spoke about the extraordinary stand that a small group of farmers led against the military and drive them away. This led me toward the question of freedom, what America is all about. I later met with the group of people afterwards, and I asked them, and in doing so, I asked myself, what do you mean when you say freedom? Most of them were tongue-tied.

What comes to mind instantly is what is this freedom from? From external compulsions, the journey and constriction of one’s life…but what is this freedom for? What are we supposed to do with our freedom, once we have liberated ourselves from the external tyranny and compulsions? This touches on very deep questions of the human mind and soul.

If one takes the briefest of classes of the teachings and writings of Swami Vivekananda, we will see that this is a very deep question of the human heart, which is unanswerable. It is answerable really, but perhaps not in the state of consciousness we ask it in.

There are these questions…what does this freedom mean, what is it for?  What does it even mean beyond being able to do what we want with our desires and our pleasures, or accidental inclinations or conditioned habits and behavior or is there a deeper meaning of freedom that we are speaking about?

The first time I taught the course on the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I was a bit concerned. Emerson was deeply influenced by the philosophy of the Bhagawad Gita and Indian philosophy. He is a great writer in American literature and I was concerned about the fact that my students may not connect with the subtlety of the meaning in his writings. I was concerned that the students may not be able to assimilate the meaning of what Swami Vivekananda calls the soul or the Brahma or Aatman in us all that is intrinsically the divine force, our true identity. Once, Swami Ramakrishna was asked by Swami Vivekananada – “why are you bowing to me?” To this, Ramakrishna replied, “I am not bowing to you, I am bowing to the God within you.” This is a true identity within us. This is the central idea of Indian philosophy, but of course, it is reflected in most great spiritual traditions in the world.

All Emerson’s essays deal with aspects of human life – money, travel, literature, and the meaning of truth or wealth, which leads us, back to our initial quest for freedom. Everything led back to this essential freedom that presents the idea of the divine within us – our true identity, which is what we truly are, underneath the surface of our conditioned self. Our identification with superficial self brings us all the suffering that we have. When we read all those articles the students were deeply touched and thrilled. When I asked them why? –  Most said different things except one who said it brought him hope. Why did it bring him hope? …. because Emerson was not saying good things were going to happen. The hope was the writings from this great tradition touched them in a part of themselves that they didn’t know they had; or they had and they had forgotten. This metaphysical DNA has a deep need to connect with something greater than ourselves and serving that brings hope. The hope and freedom lies in the very paradox that true human freedom is the freedom to obey something deeper within ourselves.

If we look at freedom, as it is today – the ideas of democracy or other social and political policies, the idea of equality that all men are created equal has a spiritual meaning. It does not mean we are all entitled to the same station in life or the same material goods. It means under the reality of God (within) we are all equal, which refers to the nature of all human beings.

Jefferson defined freedom as the hostility towards all tyranny of the mind or anything that oppresses the mind or our power of understanding. Our consciousness, which is the source of our true individuality, brings us the capacity of a higher understanding of ourselves. Freedom is the contact with this higher capacity within us, which is not enslaved to random accidental thoughts, conditions, emotional fears, and desires that pull us around like a mad monkey. Freedom is an inner quality, the liberty from external compulsions. This freedom can and should be used for the search for the inner freedom, which is the voice of our conscience, that voice which is genuine.

The meaning of freedom in America needs to be refreshed. As a nation it needs to make room for search for conscience individually and also in association with other people. What is most important is to become real human beings both inwards free and divinely free and serve from love, which is higher than oneself. If that is lost we are lost. And that is not yet lost, no matter what the state of our political system.

Swami Vivekananda is a man who made such a tremendous impact genius charm; it is time to bring this element of thought into our culture.