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June 5, 1999
The Vedas, Wall Street And Satisfaction, According To Swami T
Leaving behind their pressure cooker career, about 20 Wall Street analysts, doctors, engineers, lawyers and investors -- most of them in their late 20s -- spent a weekend in an ashram in the Pocono Mountains in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania about three weeks ago.
"Many of us had come to understand through our individual experiences that we had first learn to lead ourselves before we could lead others," says Suresh Kumar, the president of the New York chapter of NetIP that organized the retreat.
The retreat was conducted by Swami Tadatmananda (popularly known as Swami T) at the Arsha Vidya Retreat Center. Kumar says the group chose Swami T because he was an American Catholic before he embraced Hinduism and Indian culture.
"We thought he could offer us refreshing insights that someone raised in India could not," Kumar says.
One of NetIP members, physician Munish Khaneja, has been associated with the ashram for many years and was very impressed with the practical lessons offered by Swami T.
One of the most important lessons the group learned was to "lower the stakes," says Kumar.
"South Asians in particular set our stakes too high, whether we are studying or working or running our own businesses," he adds. "We do so partly because we are immigrants and we have the urge to prove ourselves too quickly. We feel, often correctly, that we are held to higher standards than those who are born and raised in America."
Swami T reminded the group that meaning is found in many relationships and work situations. If we are beholden to only one or two things in life and expect them to give us all the fulfillment, we would end up bitterly disappointed.
During the two days, the group not only meditated but also discussed a number of issues such as alleviating the work pressure, overcoming professional and personal setbacks and the merits in arranged marriages.
Sailaja Sastry spoke with Swami T this week:
What religion did your family practice? How and when did you turn to Hinduism?
I was raised Roman Catholic, but it wouldn't be correct to characterize me as a convert. As a young man I was very non-religious. In my twenties I was looking for spiritual growth, and I started practising yoga and meditation. I was a typical western seeker, which means I was going through the spiritual supermarket. In California in the 1970s, when all the teachers from India were coming here to teach, it gave me the opportunity to be exposed to a lot of different areas in Hinduism.
I was very interested in Vedanta through the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, and I spent a few months at the Sri Ramakrishna Mission. In those days I was an engineer and I was designing computers, so I had this rather rigid insistence on no one shoving belief systems down my throat. In Vedanta I found teaching and not preaching. I was interested in spiritual teaching, spiritual growth, and I found that the teachings of Vedanta addressed me at that level.
Why did you decide to make a career out of your spiritual interests in Vedanta?
After about 10 years of study and travel to India, my interest finally got strong enough. We all seek that which is valuable to us; no one has to tell us to seek food or money. Over those 10 years, I began to seek the value in this teaching. That's when I left my profession to come here [to the Arsha Vidya Retreat Center] to study.
After the three-year course I started in 1986, I went to India and came back to the Center as manager. When I first came I didn't look upon it as a lifelong commitment, but the more I was blessed by these teachings the more value I saw in them, and the more it became obvious that this was my life. Part of it too is my personality. I would perhaps have been a somewhat monkish person no matter what -- I have an inclination toward a more contemplative life.
Do you think your students are able to relate to you because of your original career as an engineer?
I don't know if I feel that way but others seem to. A lot of the people that attend these lectures are highly educated people. Mine is an orientation that is more comfortable for people who are used to using their minds. I don't demand of them that they believe in these teachings. The professional education changes the way they think about spirituality. Even in India things are changing. The tradition of the professional swami talking to the audience is starting to weaken.
What are the needs of US professionals attending the ashram's retreats?
The basic need is for spiritual growth. We live demanding lives, with too many commitments and not enough time. Even though people can be very successful financially and professionally, there is still a sense of something missing inside. We try to empower them to be at peace even in the midst of their very complicated lives. In the professional world one thing you hear all the time is "I can't wait till this project is over because then I can relax."
But that project is followed by yet another. Life continues to be a struggle even though it's very successful and rewarding. The real gift of spiritual growth is to allow us to be in these demanding situations and be content and at peace.
What are some of the values you try to impart to students?
There is a trap of thinking that contentment is found through accomplishment. This is a complete illusion. If we place the locus of contentment outside ourselves, on profession, family, money, spouses, vacation, that leads to a lot of frustration. The locus of contentment is oneself from the standpoint of Vedanta or any other religious tradition.
The mistake that everyone naturally commits is to think that the source of contentment lies out there. Then we're compelled to seek contentment out there out of a sense of desperation. There's nothing wrong with this seeking -- it's that sense of desperation that can make our lives unpleasant.
How have Indian Hindus responded to you as a non-Indian?
Something that I've always been amazed at as an American-born Hindu sanyasi is the degree of acceptance by Indian-born Hindus. It shows that the emphasis is on the content and not on the package. I've had the advantage of very thorough training by Swami Dayananda. When people hear me teach, they hear the message of the ancient sages in a modern-looking package and the modern language. I have never felt dismissed because I was not of Indian origin.
The weekend retreat takes place in a very controlled environment. How well do you think its lessons transfer to the workplace?
One advantage of coming away to a retreat is that it allows us to relax inside and loosen up our grip on a lot of preconceptions. In the professional world we get so emotionally committed to a certain path. Coming on a retreat helps you get out of that rut. You're in a different location, a very peaceful location.
Hopefully, it brings a kind of spaciousness to your heart. It becomes an opportunity to try out different worldviews. Could it be that life isn't so grim and difficult as it seems to be? Could it be that the Lord has already blessed all of us with everything we need for peace and happiness? Whatever you experience in such a process of discovery, that becomes part of you. There may be some fading [when you leave the ashram], but it's not forgotten.
You have discussed the volatile topic of arranged marriage at these retreats. Could you explain why it is a particularly thorny issue for some Indian professionals?
We had one session where we dealt with that issue. This is a group that is in a statistically difficult situation. Most of them had come from India five to ten years ago to study and then stayed as professionals.
Having lived in this country for 10 years has put some of these young people in a position where they're not entirely comfortable with an arranged marriage with someone from India. They also often have a hard time relating to [Americans] of Indian origin because their attitudes are different.
What advice do you offer Indians like these who are "caught in the middle"?
I offer them my prayers. It's a matter of being patient. One of the functions we serve through all kinds of social events is to create opportunities to meet people. I'm convinced they'll all meet the right spouses. My role is to sympathize with their positions and urge them to be patient and, from that spiritual standpoint, to take the pressure off.
You seem to be advising these Indians to meet their own future spouses. Would you endorse arranged marriages?
For people who have the right attitude there are some very big advantages to arranged marriages. Parents endeavor to match the right couple in terms of families, backgrounds, education, values. What I have found is that [American] culture has such an exaggerated value for love and love marriage. When we have this idea of romantic love, when two people meet, of course that's when it's most intense. It's like getting into a bliss bubble.
It's all wonderful for a year or two, but at some point the intensity of that romantic connection fades away. The advantage of the Hindu concept of marriage is that it's a bond that does not depend on the intensity of romantic connection. When the romantic feelings are not intense, the marriage is not set aside.
Don't you think that there are abuses contained within the institution of arranged marriage, such as dowry negotiations and the excessive attention to material wealth?
I couldn't agree more. The theory involves matching two compatible people through arranged marriage. But a lot of extraneous practices come in, such as parents trying to "purchase" the best spouse, a very perverted way of thinking. Even in love matches, if the partners are mature people they cultivate within themselves a deeper understanding and compatibility. I don't mean to imply that arranged marriages are a panacea.
What is your personal position on the issue of marriage?
As a Hindu monk, I live a celibate life. But I was married in my twenties. I consider that an advantage, having lived a normal life as a young man. Having had experience of that part of life allows me to be more supportive and understanding of people who are dealing with marriage issues.
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