Sunday Service: A Dip in the Ganges


Week of Oct 26 – Nov 1, 2014

Last month I had the pleasure of seeing the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, when he came to speak in New York. While his speech was not particularly exciting (except for the part about simplifying visa requirements), I was surprised by the spontaneous applause that erupted in the crowd when a photo of Swami Vivekananda was flashed on the giant television screen prior to the Prime Minister’s speech. Many photos were shown, but only the photo of Swami Vivekananda drew applause.

Swami Vivekananda modernized Vedanta for the age while not straying from the essential truths that came before, which is why he still draws applause more than 100 years after his death. He placed great stress on contextualizing universal truth for the present age so it remained vital and relevant.

That’s also what we do here at American Vedanta. American Vedanta is part of the Ramakrishna community that continually modernizes the faith for the present age, putting universal and timeless truth into language and practices that are relevant today. We work hard to not stray from timeless truth, but at the same time we recognize the need for making these timeless truths applicable to the world we live in today.

This week, after a short “break” from our weekly Sunday Services, we bring you an essay I wrote while staying at the head monastery of the monastic order started by Swami Vivekananda, Belur Math in Kolkata, India.

The visit to Kolkata was part of my annual trip to India, an opportunity to spiritually recharge and make sure that the modernizing we do here at American Vedanta does not stray from universal truth. As any language interpreter will tell you, it is easy to change meaning when you translate ideas from one language to another. Part of our commitment to truth here at American Vedanta is periodically checking ourselves to ensure we haven’t changed meaning and deviated from universal truth with our contextualization effort.

That periodic touchback is an ongoing process, and next week American Vedanta is involved in a trio of guest lectures by prominent Ramakrishna monks who will be speaking in New York. These monks include Swami Sarvadevananda of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, Swami Shantarupananda or the Vedanta Society of Portland, and others. The events take place Nov 1-3, 2014 in New York, and I encourage you to join us if you are in the New York metro area.

American Vedanta also will be on tour starting in December, our annual event both to make sure we’re staying true to universal truth and to connect with Vedantins who don’t live in New York. We’ll be in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, Turkey and of course India, with more location announcements to come.

While the tour is just starting to come together, you can see our current tour schedule at any time on our Tour Schedule page.

Yours in service,


GangesThis Week’s Spiritual Talk

Conversation with the Ganges

By Peter Kowalke

The Ganges is the holiest river in India. It is like Mecca for Hindus. Flowing down from the Himalayas, it is mentioned in the earliest Hindu scriptures and considered an actual goddess in the form of a river. Even those who aren’t particularly spiritual often respect its holiness because billions of devotees have worshipped it for literally thousands of years.

The Ganges also is one of the most polluted rivers on earth. Because it is sacred, for centuries vast numbers of people, many destitute, have bathed in it, given their dead to it, dumped ashes in it, and generally used and abused the river. It is said that the water of the Ganges will cure any ailment. This might be because its urine-saturated waters serve as disinfectant.

Last week I arrived at Belur Math in Calcutta, the global headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission and where I will be staying for the next three weeks. Right away I noticed that it is on the banks of the Ganges.

Now I don’t rest my faith on sacred rivers or holy places. Spirituality doesn’t need miracles or otherworldly phenomena; logic and direct experience is its own validation, something Vedanta can give. But at the same time, I’m open to the possibility of the sacred. If the holiest river in India cuts through the back yard of my guest house, of course I will take a dip. I might avoid drinking the water—and take a second bath in my room afterwards—but I can’t ignore the opportunity completely. Sometimes truth takes an interesting turn when given the chance.

So this morning I packed a towel and went for my bath in the Ganges, pollution be damned.

There already were nearly two dozen worshippers when I arrived at the ghat, the series of steps leading into the river. One wrinkled woman, emaciated, colorfully attired, pulled from the pages of a National Geographic photo, washed a shirt in the water with her small son. Three shirtless men bathed in one corner, and a woman, discreetly topless for only a moment, bathed in the other. Several small groups sat on the steps praying or watching the sunrise, a few in the process of disrobing, while one man, not far from where I set my bag, peed against the wall of the ghat.

As I readied for my own dip, I screwed in the courage and put myself in a holy frame of mind. I needed the courage so I could ignore the pollution and the spectacle my white body would bring. I created a holy frame of mind so I could experience the Ganges fully as a spiritual event, not just as an item on my bucket list. Even if there might not be magic, there still could be a sacred experience of my own making. Do it well, or do it not at all.

I came with a miracle in waiting, too: my foot. Two months ago, ominously during my last spiritual adventure, I injured the bottom of my left foot while walking 14 miles barefoot around a sacred hill. Both feet ached after the walk, but the left one never fully recovered; although mostly better, it still hurt when I walked without shoes. With my foot, the Ganges would get its opportunity for a miracle.

The first step in the water was scary.

(read more)


videoVedanta Television

American Vedanta on YouTube

Finding lasting happiness. Applying the Bhagavad Gita to daily life. Learning about the history of Vedanta in the U.S. These are some of the topics covered at American Vedanta’s YouTube channel. We curate a list of spiritual videos that will help advance your spirituality and expand your mind. When wanting spiritual videos, give our YouTube channel a look.

We also recommend other resources such as Booksaudio lectures and web sites, among other resources.


Spiritual Fitness

Do You have a Spiritual Routine?

Vedanta, if not practical, has no other relevancy. The key to practical Vedanta is an individualized spiritual routine.

There are six components of a good spiritual routine.

Swan1. Find a Community. If you have an existing church, temple or mosque, attend regularly. If not, join our Facebook group and see our list of recommended spiritual organizations.

2. Seek Guidance. Find a mentor within your existing spiritual community or contact us for a referral.

3. Attend Spiritual Services Regularly. If you don’t live near an appropriate spiritual community, we offer a weekly spiritual talk delivered by email, Facebook and Twitter. We also host a regular Vedanta Dinner for those who live in the New York City area.

4. Incorporate Individual Study. We keep a list of books and resources for your individual study needs.

5. Take Responsibility for Your Spiritual Life. Read our talk about listening to your own inner compass and contact us when you have a question that your spiritual community isn’t answering adequately.

6. Leverage Rituals Thoughtfully. As an example, read our essay about the power of saying grace.

Our longer talk about spiritual routine can be found here.

Happy Sunday! Peace be unto you. Peace be unto all.

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