Multiple Layers of Ritual in the Vedanta Society of New York

Written by Christine Karwoski: May 4, 2005

A Brief Introduction

The first time I attended Sunday service at the Vedanta Society of New York (VSNY), “America’s first Hindu organization” (Eck 2003, 98), I was struck by the Hindu and Christian influences that were apparent in the devotional music.  I found the ways in which the choir and congregation effortlessly merged Indian-style devotional songs and instruments with Western, Christian-style hymns one of the most fascinating aspects of worship at VSNY.  My interest in this area of worship became solidified as I observed the ways in which congregation members seemed to come alive when various songs were sung, clapping their hands, swaying their heads, and singing along.[1]   Observing devotional song in the Vedanta Society of New York has led me to ask several questions pertaining to the role of Hinduism and the use of ritual within this organization.  The following paper will examine the use of ritual in the Vedanta Society of New York, focusing on ritual and devotional song in relation to the interpretation of Vedanta offered by Swami Tathagatananda, the spiritual leader of the Vedanta Society of New York.  Through the lens of devotional song, I will observe how ritual is perceived in the Vedanta Society and attempt to disentangle the Hindu and Christian influences that shape the many layers of ritual within the VSNY today.

In addition to participating in and observing the use of devotional song in Sunday morning services and weekend vespers, I also observed the ritual show of devotion to Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Saradadevi, and Swami Vivekananda, and had multiple conversations with Swami Tathagatananda and the choir leader, John Schlenck.  To supplement the interviews I have conducted with various leaders in the Vedanta Society, I have also informally spoken with a female participant of VSNY.  Finally, I have corresponded via email with several other members of the Vedanta Society on issues relating to this and other academic papers concerning their organization.

The Vedanta Society of New York

Amongst the brownstones of West 71st Street, the home of the Vedanta Society of New York is hidden.  Its location on this street is inconspicuous and would scarcely be known, but for a small announcement board on the exterior of the building, stating its name and weekly schedule, and the occasional smell of incense that wanders out into the street.  Founded in the year 1894 by Swami Vivekananda, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and the first teacher of Vedanta to come to the United States, its philosophical teachings are based on the Vedas and various other spiritual teachings from different saints and sages. While the VSNY clearly states in its pamphlet, “What is Vedanta?”, that Vedanta is a philosophy that incorporates the spiritual teachings of “saints and sages that India has produced during the last 5,000 years,” the strain of Vedanta that this organization advocates includes the teachings of sages and saints outside of India as well, such as Jesus among others.[2]  This inclusiveness of saints, sages, and prophets is most obviously displayed on the interior of the building, where on the western wall of the main congregation room a quote from the Vedas is painted.  It states, “Truth is one, sages call it variously” (Rig Veda 1.164.46), with the painting surrounded by the various symbols of other world religions, such as the Star of David and the Dharmic Wheel. 

Although the Vedanta Society of New York attempts to include all major religious traditions, the rites and stories of Christianity and Hinduism typically dominate lectures and other rituals.  That being said, it is important to note that this religious organization notably distances itself from the label Hindu or at least the “orthodoxy” that congregation members perceive in Hindu rituals and mythology.  Bill, a long standing member of the Vedanta Society of New York, stressed to me that VSNY members are not “orthodox Hindus centered on beliefs” but rather, they “emphasize spiritual practice and putting teachings into action.”[3]   (However, Swami Tathagatananda appears to see certain actions as interfering with the universal appeal of VSNY, in particular ritual action).  This comment is particularly fascinating when seen in the context of the recent debates over the invention of Hinduism and the Hindu identity.  VSNY’s reluctance to be grouped into a category with “orthodox” Hinduism, which they deem to be primarily focused on particular practices and therefore limited in universal appeal, displays that they consider Hinduism to be a single faith and one with which they prefer to contrast themselves.  Wendy Doniger (1991), in her article “Hinduism By Any Other Name”, asserts that “[a]ll of us identify who we are in contrast with who we are not…” (36). VSNY clearly chooses to contrast itself with “orthodox” Hinduism, whatever that may be, in order to carve out its own niche in America’s religious landscape.  Still, as Paul Connerton (2003) keenly observes, all beginnings involve recollection (6) and while Vedanta Society adherents prefer to contrast themselves with Hinduism, they are at the same time asserting their connection. 

Christopher Isherwood, a scholar of the Ramakrishna movement and a Vedanta Society member, reiterates Bills aversion to categorizing Vedanta under the title of Hinduism in his text Vedanta For The Western World.  In it he (Isherwood 1948) states that, “Vedanta is often, but less correctly, called Hinduism…”(1) and states Vedanta to be:

…the philosophy of the Vedas, those Indian scriptures which are the most ancient religious writings now known to the world…Reduced to its elements, Vedanta Philosophy consists of three propositions. First, that Man’s real nature is divine. Second, that the aim of human life is to realize this divine nature. Third, that all religions are essentially in agreement (1).

It is important to our discussion of Hindu and Christian influences on ritual in VSNY, specifically devotional song, that the Vedanta Society of New York also includes in its tenets a fourth point.   The pamphlet “What Is Vedanta?” states, “The ways to realize this divinity are innumerable.  They are called the Yogas. As Sri Ramakrishna declared, ‘As many faiths, so many paths’.”

While categorizing American Vedanta as Hinduism may have proven to be just as problematic and controversial as the label Hinduism itself has been, Diana Eck (2002), in A New Religious America, defines the Vedanta Society of New York as “an already assimilated form of Hindu religious life that emphasizes universal ideals”(101). While it is true that the Vedanta Society emphasizes universal ideals, the title of assimilated Hinduism does not fit VSNY quite accurately.  Through observing the physical layout of the Vedanta Society of New York, VSNY’s philosophies and influences are apparent.  Here it is not so much an assimilation of Hinduism into Western culture as it is a fusion of Hinduism and Western culture.  Upon first arriving in the main congregation room of VSNY, I was struck by the physical similarities between its physical space and many Christian churches.  Yet, with further examination I found that are multiple layers of influence within the Vedanta Society of New York.   I discovered that while the layout of the room was overwhelmingly Western Christian, the Hindu influences in the Vedanta Society of New York were not only greater than I originally thought, but vital to the ways in which practitioners worship.

            While a large congregation room is common to diasporic Hindu temples in America, my first reaction to the set up of the congregation room in the Vedanta Society of New York was that it must have been borrowed from the spatial map of the Western Christian church.  As in Christian houses of worship, the chairs are arranged to face toward the front of the room, in the fashion of pews, implying a leader at the front lecturing and a congregation which faces toward him, listening.  Additional seating on the front left side is apportioned to choir members and in front of the choir is an electric keyboard (reminiscent of the organ used in Christian church) attached to a synthesizer, which is usually played along with devotional songs.  Adding to the overwhelming Christian church-like feel in the Vedanta Society, songbooks fashioned like Christian hymnals can be seen on the chairs designated for choir members.  The focal point of the room is an altar flanked by flowers and candles, and to the left of the altar is a chair, from which Swami Tathagatananda delivers his lectures to the congregation. 

           While the layout of the congregation room suggests a preference for Christian principles of design, the focal point of the room, the altar, draws from Hindu and Christian social memories.  On the altar is a photographic image of Sri Ramakrishna flanked by flowers, and on the east and west walls surrounding it are photographs of Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda.  The visual presentation of these three elicits feelings of familiarity to both Hindu and Christian traditions.   Paul Connerton (2003) explains that in social memory “ [a]ll beginnings contain an element of recollection” (6).  This holy trinity of VSNY is the “element of recollection” for members of both Hindu and Christian backgrounds.  It is reminiscent of the Christian imagery of Jesus and the saints that are often depicted inside churches, in the form of statues and paintings, and of Hindu traditions of guru worship and understandings of darsan.  In focusing their spiritual thoughts on visual representations of holiness, all congregation members experience “social recollection” and still VSNY “makes a concerted effort to begin with a wholly new start” (Connerton 2003, 6) in their new presentation of old traditions with Sri Ramakrishna’s image as the focal point.

           Just as the visual iconography at VSNY is reminiscent of Hindu and Christian traditions, other Hindu influences, though not as physically overwhelming, can be found in the layers of VSNY’s physical layout and philosophy.  Hindu influence in the Vedanta Society of New York is most readily demonstrated, not in the physical presentation of the organization, but in the reactions members have to the photographs of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda.  Persons of South Asian and European descent regularly clasp their hands in the sign of pranam toward these pictures, prostrate themselves in front of them, and have even at times instructed me to give pranam to Sri Ramakrishna before leaving the congregation room.[4]  Hindu influence is also demonstrated in the instruments that are played by the different choir members.  Sitting in front of the choir on the left side are traditional Indian instruments such as the sitar and the tabla.  Finally, Hinduism also influences songs that are contained inside the songbooks, with many song lyrics being written in Sanskrit and Bengali.

            While there is definitely a calculated fusion of Hinduism and Christianity throughout the physical space of this organization, it is the Christian influence that is most prominently displayed, through its chairs, songbooks, and choir.   Yet it appears that if one peels back a layer to observe the  religious life of VSNY members, Hinduism plays a larger role than Chrstianity both in the public realms of VSNY and, even more obviously, in the private devotion of members.  While the use of songbooks appears to be very Christian, with Hinduism “being primarily vested in the oral word (and) the written word itself often seen as typically worthless and even prohibited”(Beck 1993, 1), the songs that the choir chooses to sing during Sunday services are influenced by both Hindu and Christian traditions.  While Hinduism and Christianity seem equally represented in the public forum of Sunday services, the less public devotional songs that are sung at aarti are always in Sanskrit.  Also, while the visual layout of VSNY is more inspired by Christian influence, the ways in which members show devotion to Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda comes only from the influence of Hindu traditions.


             Defining ritual within academia or within the Vedanta Society is never an easy task and is certainly one in which there are many differing opinions.  While Frits Staal (1975) states that “[r]itual is pure activity, without meaning or goal” (9), Clifford Gertz (1973) defines ritual to be something in which “the world as lived and the world as imagined… turn out to be the same world” (112).  Here we have an example of what has been observed by Edmund Leach (1968):  “[There is] the widest possible disagreement as to how the word ritual should be understood”(526).  The Vedanta Society of New York illustrates such disagreements:  there is considerable discrepancy between the definitions of ritual offered by the people involved.  Swami Tathagatananda has even taken the stance that within VSNY there are no rituals, indicating that he does not consider that sacred music or song can be categorized as ritual.  He states:

Ritual is one of the major items of spiritual life and every religion has its own ritual. Therefore we do not do ritual here. If I do ritual, we will lose the character of universality. Christian is coming. Jew is coming. Muslim is coming. Buddhist is coming. Atheist is coming. Whose ritual, [then, should be use?]

Yet, when I have talked with John, the choir director, about song, he indicated that he believes that song fits into the category of ritual and then explained that ritual varies from Vedanta Society to Vedanta Society depending on the Swami who presides over each organization.   

Although consistent agreement on the definition of ritual is virtually impossible, I believe that Catherine Bell’s (1992) description is most helpful as a general frame:

[T]he way in which certain social actions strategically distinguish themselves in relation to other actions. In a very preliminary sense, ritualization is a way of acting that is designed and orchestrated to distinguish and privilege what is being done in comparison to other, usually more quotidian, activities. As such, ritualization is a matter of various culturally specific strategies for setting some activities off from others, for creating and privileging a qualitative distinction between the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane,’ and for ascribing such distinctions to realities thought to transcend the powers of human actors. (74)

In the VSNY ritual manifests itself in three ways: devotional song, lecture, and devotional practices and reverence to Sri Ramakrishna.  Through observation of the extended example of devotional song, it is evident that Swami ji strives to include Hindu and Christian social recollections into VSNY and obscure from public view rituals which he considers too sectarian for the Vedanta Society of New York.

Devotional Songs

Guy Beck (1993) states, “Unlike some Indian traditions that accent the ideal of silence and quietism–for example Buddhism, Jainism, and the modern synthetic movements such as the Ramakrishna Mission, Brahmo Samaj, and Sri Aurobindo Ashram–Hinduism has sacred sound as its heart and soul”(6).  Although traditionally the Vedanta Society, in its close connection with the Ramakrishna Mission, does in fact “accent the ideal of silence”, it also embraces the “heart and soul” of Hinduism through its use of devotional song.  Devotional song, the most inclusive of rituals at VSNY, elicits a response from members of Hindu and Christian background alike.  Interested in how devotional song and congregational singing came to be embraced in VSNY, I interviewed John, the choir leader of the Vedanta Society and long-time member.[5]  John proved to be much more than a choir leader at the VSNY, as he had also been influential in the foundation of the music program and was incredibly helpful in providing historical information on this program.  John, as I have stated before, said that ritual activities within different Vedanta Societies vary from place to place, with VSNY being one of the less ritualistic of the Vedanta Societies in America.  He expressed the view that this quality can be attributed to a lack of “central authority” in VSNY and its past spiritual leaders who depended less on ritual than on philosophical conversation. 

Interestingly, when further questioned on the place of ritual within VSNY, he stated that on special occasions, after Sunday services conclude, Swami ji performs various traditional Hindu rituals for a select group of people.   These rituals, described as Hindu puja, are said to take place on the third floor of the brownstone, apart from the main congregation room.  Later I will discuss them, but for now, let me focus on the unifying ritual of devotional song and its strategic incorporation into VSNY services.

John was introduced to the Vedanta Society of New York in 1958, after graduating from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester and moving to New York City in hopes of being able to make a living through his love for music.  Growing up in the Midwest he had had some involvement with the Unitarian church, but had considered himself to be agnostic for many of his formative years.  Through a friend that he had met in New York, he was introduced to Swami Vivekananda’s writings on Vedanta and after having read some texts on this subject he came to the conclusion that “these people were very liberal” and he “was home.”   He started attending the Vedanta Society in New York regularly, but did not seriously think of how to incorporate music into his spiritual life until Swami Pavitrananda, the predecessor of Swami Tathagatananda, asked him to write an article about music and spirituality to be published in India.  Shortly after writing this article the song aspect of worship in the Vedanta Society of New York started to develop gradually.   At the request of Swami Pavitrananda, John began to compose western style songs for Easter and Christmas services and began learning proper pronunciation of Sanskrit words from Indian members of VSNY so that he would be able to sing bhajans

Despite the gradual introduction of devotional music into VSNY it was not given central place in Sunday services until Swami Pavitrananda became ill and John needed to help take up more time during these services.  To help reduce the strain of lecturing on Swami ji, John began to perform solo songs and instrumentals in front of the congregation.  Still it wasn’t until Swami Pavitrananda passed away in 1977, and Swami Tathagatananda took over the position of spiritual leader, that VSNY began to implement congregational singing into its services.  At Swami Tathagatananda’s urging devotional music was introduced into VSNY services, including congregation song.  John recounted that Swami Tathagatananda borrowed the idea from the Vedanta Society of Boston, where he had seen congregational singing being used and had considered it a useful tool in attaining spiritual pursuits.

            Today, at the Vedanta Society of New York, devotional songs are used in two different settings: Sunday services and weekend vespers.  Sunday morning services usually attract twenty to thirty people, while weekend vesper attendance consists of roughly one-third that number.  My first experience with devotional song in VSNY took place on Swami Vivekananda’s birthday and was a bit different from following services that I later attended.  This display of devotional song was unusual because it included not only congregational singing out of songbooks, but also solo performances by various congregation members.  The songs chosen were diverse, and the ways the congregation reacted to them were equally so.

On January 30, 2005, Swami Vivekananda’s birthday, I entered into the Vedanta Society of New York to find the choir, which consisted of people of South Asian and European descent, already singing a Hindu devotional song.   The song invoked the name of Sri Ramakrishna and was sung in Sanskrit.  As it was being sung, I looked around the room and noticed that many women of South Asian descent were showing their appreciation for the music by swaying their heads with the rhythm.  As Swami Tathagatananda entered the room the singing halted and he took his place in front of the congregation to lecture about the life of Swami Vivekananda.  Once Swami ji had finished with his lecture, two men handed out green songbooks and John invited the congregation to join along with the choir in singing the last two devotional songs.  One song, written by John, had a style that was reminiscent of a Christian hymn with the only one distinguishing factor lying in its lyrics, which referred to Swami Vivekananda and his journey to America. A second song also had a Christian feel to it and was written by a practitioner of the Vedanta Society in the beginning of the 20th century.  During these two songs the congregation did not take an active part in singing and although many people kept their eyes fixed on their songbooks, they were simply mouthing the words instead of singing out loud.

           The second song was written in more of an Indian fashion and was accompanied by Indian musical instruments played by John and other choir members.  The songbook stated that the author of this song was a student of Swami Vivekananda and the lyrics for the song were written in English, Bengali, and Sanskrit.  While not all members of the congregation sang along with the choir, this song seemed to enliven the congregation more than any previous composition.  Many people, both of Western and South Asian descent, participated in singing this song.

           After these devotional songs were finished an Indian woman walked up onto the elevated area, where the altar stands with its photograph with Sri Ramakrishna and near where Swami ji sits, and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the altar, facing toward the congregation.  With her eyes closed and her hands keeping the rhythm of the music, tapping them in a backward and forward motion on her knees, she sang an Indian song.  Audience appreciation was high and could be seen in the many heads that swayed with the rhythm of her song.  After she finished, she walked back to her seat in the choir and a young man of European descent got up from his seat in the front of the congregation.  Putting his American flag guitar strap over his shoulder, in front of the audience, he began to sing a rock-pop type of song.  The song was styled a bit like Christian rock music, young, hip, and devotional, but with a Buddhist twist.  As he sang, “modern Buddha destroying confusion…serving others is the only way…”, I was surprised to see that many of the older Indian and Western people in the audience were thoroughly enjoying the song.  Again many people were clapping their hands and swaying their heads along with the beat in the same fashion as they had done with the Indian woman’s song.  I had originally thought that it might be a bit too untraditional for them, but they seemed to truly enjoy it and when the song was finished different people in the audience made the pranam sign and then clapped.

On this occasion, Swami Vivekananda’s birthday, there was a complete merging of Christian and Hindu influence in the devotional music that was used at VSNY.   While this may have taken place inadvertently, with the choice of songs randomly selected by John, it seems to me more likely that there was a planned integration of these two cultures and religions for this special event.  The balance between the Indian woman singing a Hindu song and the young man of Western descent playing a Western-Christian-rock-type song seemed to have been carefully fashioned.  John’s later acknowledgement that on the day before the service Swami ji had requested these two to perform in front of the congregation indicates that forethought was involved.  Perhaps the intent was to balance out the overwhelmingly Hindu tone of this service, which ended with a distribution of Indian food to the congregation, so that members of Western descent would feel more at home.

The second setting in which devotional songs are sung by the congregation takes place on Friday and Saturday evenings at 6:00 and, according to John, is referred to as vespers.[6]  He went on to explain, however, that that another word is used informally to refer to  the songs that take place on the weekends at dusk at VSNY:  aarti.   John informed me that while some people in the congregation may call this type of devotional singing aarti, since it doesn’t include the use of lights it is not a true aarti.   He also noted that he thinks the title vespers makes Westerners feel more comfortable with this ritual.  That being said, very few people of Indian or Western descent use the term vespers for the songs that are performed during this time, rather congregation members prefer to use the word aarti.   It seems that in naming this service “vespers,” there is an attempt to anglicize this ritual at VSNY in order to gain a more “Western” congregation.  Perhaps this is due to the song list consisting of only Hindu influenced songs, which are written in Sanskrit and the use of the Christian term vespers is an attempt to counter-balance the service to be inclusive to everyone.  Privately, the congregation, comprised of Westerns and Indians, leaders and members, embrace the Hindu-ness of their rituals, and reject the Christian nomenclature that is publicly assigned to them.

At aarti a small group of people–usually five to ten[7]–gather every Saturday and Sunday evenings to sing four or five designated songs.   Located in the first five pages of the songbook, these songs are written primarily by Swami Vivekananda and other previous VSNY leaders.  The five songs that are sung at aarti are:  1)“Breaker of the World’s Bondage / Sri Ramakrishna Stotram” 2) “Khandana Bhava Bandhana” 3) “Sri Ramakrishna Stotrom (Om Hrim) 4) “Sri Sarada Stotrom (Prakritim Paramam)” and 5) “Sri Sarada Stotram”.  John stated that while these songs are not written completely in Sanskrit, as some Bengali vocabulary is mixed into the lyrics, they are written predominantly in Sanskrit so as to give a “sense of tradition” to the aarti.  John usually presides over this evening event, which lasts about a half an hour.  Playing the keyboard, which is hooked up to a synthesizer, he starts the songs off for the members.  On the rare occasions when he is unable to attend aarti, he has a pre-recorded tape of himself playing the harmonies so that the congregation can sing along with the recording.  Due to the group’s small size, the song lyrics are hardly audible over the sound of the synthesizer that they accompany.  Having finished singing the four or five devotional songs, members of the congregation usually make the sign of pranam toward the photograph of Sri Ramakrisha.  Occasionally members also prostrate themselves in front of the pictures of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda.

It is interesting to note that on the one occasion when I arrived about ten minutes earlier than aarti began, I observed some sort of pre-aarti ritual.  On this occasion, while I was the only person sitting in the room, a woman came in, removed her shoes, and lit the candles surrounding the pictures of Sri Ramakrishna.  She then lit a stick of incense from these candles and waved it in circles around the picture of Sri Ramakrisha that sits on the altar.  Afterwards, she took the incense all through the room, waving it and then brought it back to the altar, where she left it burning next to the candles.  Fascinated with how this recognizable Hindu ritual occurred out of the sight of congregation members who would later attend this service, I was curious to understand how members of Western descent perceived this ritual and if it was even known to them at all.   After aarti that night I met and spoke with Kathy,[8] a congregation member who was able to answer some of my questions.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Kathy, a current member of the Vedanta Society of New York, grew up in the Christian church attending Catholic school as a child.  Appearing slightly nervous, she admits that while occasionally she still attends mass at the Christian church, due to the fact that her uncle is a priest, she has been a member of VSNY for about fifteen years.  The slight anxiousness that I sensed when talking with Kathy on this subject did not appear to arise from a conflict within her own spirituality, but rather in her desire to portray Vedanta in the right light.  Kathy explained that she was introduced to VSNY many years ago by a friend and was immediately attracted to Swami Tathagatananda’s spirituality and lectures.  Acknowledging that she hadn’t attended aarti in a few weeks, she stated that when she does attend aarti she comes for the music and the feeling that it gives her of being close with God.  

At first, Kathy was a bit nervous about talking with me.  She seemed convinced that I should talk with Swami ji instead, that she would not be able to provide the right answers to my questions.  Still, she hesitantly agreed to sit and talk with me for a bit about her experiences and interpretations of VSNY and ritual.  When I asked Kathy about her interpretation of the waving of the incense before aarti, she explained that it was a ritual that was done as a gift to God.  She clarified this point by comparing the waving of incense with the presentation of flowers and candles on the altar.  Just as the flowers and candles are gifts to God, so is the incense.  I was struck by how, while this action was done on the sidelines of the public ritual, Kathy was still aware of it and considered it to be a Hindu ritual that she had to explain carefully to me.  It also seemed to be an affirmation of Western congregation member’s knowledge and acceptance of the use of Hindu rituals in the organization.  While this ritual did not evolve from the Christian tradition, Kathy still felt comfortable enough to discuss it with me and obviously didn’t feel that it disqualified her from attending this service.

Having received viewpoints on devotional song and ritual from different members of the congregation, I was interested to see how Swami Tathagatananda viewed devotional music and why it was that he decided to make it a part of his services.  Swami Tatagathananda, a kind Bengali man in his eighties, had stressed to me on several previous occasions his desire to help Americans achieve happiness.  (By “American,” he meant people of European descent.)  The vision of Vedanta that he consistently presented to me was congruent with the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, which emphasized the philosophical aspects of Vedanta and de-emphasized the importance of Sri Ramakrishna (Jackson 1994, 35-36).  Since the philosophical aspects of Vedanta were so obviously his focus for me in previous conversations, I was interested to see how he would answer my questions that had more to do with ritual than with the philosophy.  On March 31, 2005, I specifically questioned Swami ji about  ritual activity in the Vedanta Society of New York and was amazed at his ability to evade my questions on ritual and to direct the conversation toward philosophy.   Throughout the conversation I was torn between thinking that this was due to language differences and communication problems or that Swami ji simply thought that it would be in my best interest to discuss philosophical topics instead. 

          Attempting to keep the Vedanta Society’s universal appeal and open-mindedness, Swami Tathagatanada seems torn about how to understand the place of ritual within the Vedanta Society.  Although he often says that spirituality without ritual is impossible for the common person, this is what he professes happens at VSNY.  When I questioned Swami ji about the rituals within the Vedanta Society on March 31, 2005 he stated:

Every religion has got three parts: mythology, ritual and spiritual.  So Hinduism has also got also each mythology, each philosophy and each ritual. We will elaborate on these things.  In order to keep one’s mind on God one cannot steadily focus on God without any other apparatus. So that is a very difficult thing for everybody, so we have invented these rituals, we have invented mythology, in order to bring that philosophical teachings through mythology, through ritual, and help the human being to be spiritually minded. When you do some ritual, in any religion, you are keeping your mind concentrated on those offsets and therefore you are some way thinking of God, if not directly then indirectly.  So ritual has got value to enrich human life, to make human life more God oriented, more spiritually focused. Left to themselves without ritual or mythology they would be almost nowhere, blank, so forth… The only purpose of the ritual is to give a chance to the devotee to occupy his or her mind in total thought… Rituals are secondary, they are not permanent.

           While this statement tells of the spiritual gains of practicing ritual, such as helping the human being to become more spiritually minded, when I specifically asked Swami ji if he, even on special occasions, did any rituals for small groups of the congregation, he vehemently denied that he did.  Swami ji stated that the Vedanta Society of New York does not practice ritual—or at least Hindu ritual. He stated that he feared the Vedanta Society would lose its universal appeal if he were to incorporate Hindu rituals into VSNY services or any aspect of community life. In his words,

Ritual is one of the major items of spiritual life and every religion has its own ritual.  Therefore we do not do any ritual here.  If I do ritual we’ll lose our character of universality…. Whose ritual? Although [Vedanta] is 90% Hindu, still I do not want to do any ritual out of the Hindu culture…. I want to maintain the universal character.

          This statement directly contradicts to what members told me and what I myself had seen take place before the start of aarti.    Swami ji clearly wants to deny any Hindu ritual practice, at least in conversation with me.  His fear of losing what he considers VSNY’s universal appeal and the ability to attract members like myself apparently stands in his way of acknowledging the ways in which he helps other congregation members “realize divinity” through their own paths.

                That being said, when I questioned Swami ji about his reasoning for bringing congregational singing to the Vedanta Society of New York, while he did associate devotional song with Hinduism, he did so in a way that suggests his belief in its universal appeal.  As he explains it,

Even in Hindu society, congregational songs are there…. These congregational songs are nothing but spiritual songs, they are not social or secular songs. Spiritual song, spiritual reading, spiritual discussion will uplift your mind, inspire your mind, enrich your mind, spiritualize your mind…. People are not able to maintain their connection with the church, which is so dull and drab…. Music is not being done only to entertain people or to keep them here.  No, music is a part of spiritual pursuit.

Through his statement “Even in Hindu society, congregational songs are there,” we can observe that Swami ji believes that devotional song can be found in all religious communities, including Hinduism.  Swami Tathagatananda’s statements display that in his opinion there is clear difference between devotional singing as a ritual, or not as a ritual, and other Hindu rituals.  Perhaps this is why this is the one authorized ritualistic action that takes place on the main floor of VSNY, within public view, and is openly embraced by Swami ji.  Perhaps Swami ji doesn’t see the connection of devotional song to ritual because in his own definition of ritual, ritual acts as a cultural divider whereas for him song is culturally unifying.  Perhaps the presentation of the devotional songs, in a way that is reminiscent of Christian traditions, allows for Swami ji to feel that the Vedanta Society is not ruining its all-inclusive foundation and that the Western members of the congregation will easily be able to relate to it.  Perhaps it is also because he believes that all good people, regardless of their background, love music and share a commonality in this love for music.  As Swami ji declares, “There are many people who do not love music, but these people are not a very good type of people, because they have got no sentiment to allow themselves to be entertained in this way.” 

Carl Jackson (1994) states, “Swamis of the Ramakrishna movement were forced to confront several perplexing issues in establishing Vedanta societies in the United States” (49). One of these issues Jackson identifies as the issue of message:

What was the appropriate Ramakrishna message for America? All swamis were committed both to the Vedanta philosophy and to Ramakrishna’s teachings, but to what extent should each be emphasized? Should the movement restrict its message to the philosophy, which would be more acceptable to Westerners? How far should they encourage the ‘cult of Ramakrishna’— the worship of Ramakrishna’s image and the introduction of traditional Hindu devotional practices? As will be seen, these four issues refused to die, with frequent differences among the swamis concerning their resolution (49-50).

 When discussing the place of ritual and devotional music within the Vedanta Society of New York, Swami ji seems torn by his conviction that there are two diverse groups of people within the Vedanta Society—Western and Indian.  In considering the message he wants to project, he wants to exclude neither group.  Therefore he seems to have created two different layers within the Vedanta Society of New York.  One is associated with Western patterns of worship and  thinking; this is the public, main-floor version of VSNY.  The other layer is more hidden from view.  It takes place either outside the main congregation room or outside of services altogether, and it appeals specifically to the social memory of Hindus. 

Faced with a growing number of South Asian members in the Vedanta Society of New York and concerned that their Hindu sensibilities may obscure the Vedanta Society’s universal appeal, Swami Tathagatananda does two things at once.  On the one hand, he accepts a number of Hindu ritual practices, thereby helping Indian members realize their “divinity” by following spiritual paths that are familiar to them.  On the other hand, he attempts to hide such practices from public view.  Thus he creates a multi-layered Vedanta Society that he believes can be all things to all people.  In constructing this multi-layered reality, devotional song plays an important role.  In Swami ji’s view, it is able to cut across the cultural layers that seem so problematic.  Beck (1993) writes that “sacred sound in theory and in practice, indeed forms a ‘central mystery’ of the Hindu tradition and functions as a common thread connecting a number of outwardly different sectors within it.”(3)  Swami ji apparently also sees this “common thread” as capable of connecting the different cultural and religious backgrounds that converge in the Vedanta Society of New York.





Beck, G. L. 1993. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.


Bell, C. 1992. Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.


Bill Conrad. “Re: Pluralism Project and Syllabus C/O Bill Conrad,” personal e-mail. 22 March 2005.


Connerton, P. 2003. How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Doniger, W. 1991. Hinduism By Any Other Name. The Wilson Quarterly. 15:3:  35-41.


Eck, D. L.  2002. A New Religious America. New York: HarperCollins.


Geertz, C. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.


Isherwood, C. 1948. Vedanta for the Western World. Great Britain: Henderson &Spalding


Jackson, C. T. 1994. Vedanta for the West. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1994.


Schlenck, John. Interview by Christine Karwoski. 10 March 2005.


Leach, E. R. 1968. Ritual. In The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 13. ed. D.L. Sills,  526. New York: Macmillan.


Staal, F. (1987) The Meaninglessness of Ritual.  Numen 26,


Swami Tathagatananda. Interview by Christine Karwoski. Tape Recording. 31 March 2005.


The Vedanta Society of New York. Choral Song Book. New York.


The Vedanta Society of New York. What is Vedanta?. New York.


The Vedanta Society of New York. March 2005 Schedule. New York.

[1] On this first encounter with devotional song, I noticed that congregation members did not participate when songs written in English were sung (those who were singing in the congregation were either mouthing or mumbling the words) and experienced the opposite reaction for the Sanskrit and Bengali songs (with old women clapping their hands and swaying their heads).   While at first I took this to be indicative of different degrees of authority the congregation perceived in these songs, I now believe it to be a matter of stylistic preference.

[2] This pamphlet was obtained from a desk in the foyer of the Vedanta Society, where other organization pamphlets are kept along with a sign-in sheet for new attendees.


[3] Bill Conrad, “Re: Pluralism Project and Syllabus C/O Bill Conrad,” 22 March 2005, personal e-mail, 3/22/205.

[4] I have observed pranam multiple times after services and during visits to the Vedanta Society.

[5] All of the information in this paragraph, unless otherwise footnoted, comes from an interview I conducted with John Schlenck on 3/10/05.

[6] The information provided here was obtained through an interview on 3/10/05.

[7] This group usually consists mainly of members of Indian descent. The members of European descent who take part in this ritual are those who take a more active role in the organization, such as people who cook for Swami ji or help out in other ways.

[8] To protect this member’s privacy I will use the pseudonym Kathy.

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