Written by Christine Karwoski: April 11, 2005
In 1894 the Vedanta Society of New York, the first Hindu organization in the United States, was founded by Swami Vivekananda, a disciple of the Bengali saint Sri Ramakrishna. Since that time, it has striven to bring basic Vedanta principles to a Western audience. These are understood to be the following: God is one, though called by multiple names; all humanity is divine; the goal of life is to understand this divinity; and there are various ways to understand our divinity. Although this organization is considered by many to be Hindu, there have in recent years been discussions about whether Western practitioners of Vedanta are indeed Hindus. A related question is whether Vedanta itself should be considered as standing within the Hindu tradition or beyond it. The Vedanta Society of New York stresses that it is not an orthodox Hindu organization centered specifically on Hindu beliefs. Rather, it asks its participants to think about their own faith and spirituality, and about how to apply the teachings of Vedanta to their own religious practices. Since 1921 the Vedanta Society has been located in the Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Activities and Schedule
At the Vedanta Society the weekly services, which are presided over by Swami Tathagatananda, are held at 11:00 AM on Sundays and are about an hour in duration. Each week’s service centers on a particular topic, such as the benefits of silence or Ramakrishna’s birth. Swami-ji lectures on these topics, leaving the remainder of the hour for devotional songs rendered by the choir and congregation. In addition to this weekly service there are other classes and meditations offered by Swami Tathagatananda: one on “the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna” (Tuesdays at 8:00 PM) and one on the Bhagavad-Gita (Fridays at 8:00 PM). Group devotional singing, which is led John Schlenck, takes place on Saturdays and Sundays at 6:00 PM.
The Vedanta Society is housed in a three-level brownstone, with the top and bottom levels being used for housing, offices, and everyday living, while the middle level is used for worship. The main room for worship in the Vedanta Society of New York is set up differently from other Hindu organizations around the city, offering a churchlike atmosphere that is achieved by arranging seats after the fashion of pews and allowing an area for a choir at the side of the room. Wooden chairs in this room always face toward the front, as if in anticipation of the Sunday service and or the weekend sessions of devotional singing. At the front of the room is an altar containing a portrait of Sri Ramakrishna, flanked by flowers. In addition to this portrait, there are also portraits of the other important founding figures of the Vedanta Society, Sri Ramakrishna’s wife Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda, his star pupil. In the left front corner of the room one finds a synthesizer along with several other musical instruments which members of the choir use to accompany their devotional songs. On the wall on the right hand side of the room is a painted inscription that states “Truth is One, Sages call it Variously” (Rig Veda 1.164.46) with the star of David, the crucifix, the Om symbol, the Muslim crescent, and the Buddhist wheel of Dharma surrounding it. In the back of the room is a bookstore, where one can purchase various books on Hinduism and Vedanta philosophy.
The devotional songs heard at the Vedanta Society, during both services and group singing periods, are written in English, Bengali, and Sanskrit; their authors may either be of South Asian or of European descent. These songs are accompanied either by Indian instruments, such as the tabla and the sitar, or by a synthesizer that produces a variety of different musical sounds. In addition to the songs and bhajans found in the hymnals and performed at various occasions, group members are encouraged to write their own devotional songs for congregational use.
Although the Vedanta Society was originally formed to bring the tenets of Vedanta philosophy to the Western world and its Euro-American population, roughly half of the congregation now claims South Asian descent. Most members of the congregation are between 35 and 70 years of age. Swami Tathagatananda is not entirely content with this situation, and in the future he would like to help more people of European descent and more young people.