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The journey to enlightenment

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Swami Sarvapriyananda is a monk this talk is “the most direct path to Swami Sarvapriyananda is part of a lineage that dates back 2,000 years and more to the foundations of the Hindu religion. Its modern roots trace to Ramakrishna, a 19th century mystic, whose successor Swami Vivekananda founded the Ramakrishna Order.

The former recluse is now in the media spotlight, with videos all over YouTube. His theme: explaining the wisdom of ancient India to modern audiences.

The swami is still mild mannered and self-deprecating, seemingly unaffected by the spotlight. The subject of enlightenment.” Who could miss that?

He is speaking at Samadhi Yoga House near where I live, in Nova Scotia, as part of the two-month speaking tour he does every year. The head of the Vedanta Center in New York City, he teaches there but most of his time is spent studying and meditating. He is an obsessive reader with a rare clarity of mind.

Vivekananda was a charismatic teacher and speaker who brought Hinduism and Yoga to the United States in the 1890s.

He gave a short speech on religious tolerance at a conference in Chicago that is still quoted today. A brilliant intellect, he befriended scientists like Nickola Tesla and Lord Kelvin, and actress Sarah Bernhardt.

A member of the Ramakrishna Order, Swami Sarvapriyananda moved from India to head the Vedanta Society of Southern California at the Hollywood Temple. There’s a switch. Now he is in New York.

“Is it okay if I write an article on the Swami and his message?” I ask James Traverse, the local yogi who has invited the Swami to speak. My host points to the parking lot in back. “Go ask him,” he says.

The Swami, a small man dressed in a traditional orange monk’s robe, is sitting with a small group beneath the trees. He agrees to my request. Someone passes me a chair. There is scarcely a pause in the conversation.

Swami Sarvapriyananda is an expert on Vedanta, the philosophy based on the ancient Sanskrit texts known as the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of India. Vedanta is considered universal in its application to all cultures and all religious backgrounds. It affirms the oneness of existence, the divinity of the soul, and the harmony of all religions.

Vedanta is a combination of “veda,” which means “knowledge,” and “anta,” which means “the end of” or “the goal of,” or “the edge of,” implying it is fluid, evolving. It is the search for self-knowledge that is meant to be understood via experience, preferably with the help of a skilled teacher.

The Swami has a light touch. He says he has just learned the term “glamping, glamorous camping,” from attending the World Yoga Festival in the UK.

He talks about the origins of Hinduism in the West. “Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century American writer and philosopher, was a key figure,” he says. “My middle name is Emerson,”

I say. “We are related.” (Ego talking.) In more recent times the Beatles went to India, he says. That helped spread interest too. John and Yoko bought the estate where my grandmother grew up, I say. (More ego.)

‘Sometimes I yearn for the wandering life of a monk. No electricity. You live in a hut, take food in the temple, then walk until dark.’

William James, the Harvard psychologist who is considered the father of the modern discipline, wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, said the swami. My grandfather Emerson gave me that book when I was a teenager, I said. (Ego again.) The bookish swami seems impressed.

The YouTube conversation between the swami and Deepak Chopra comes up. “This is McYoga, McVedanta,” says the swami. “An introduction to these ideas at the most basic level.”

“Nature is strong and stark in Nova Scotia,” he says. “The sky is clear. In India they only get clear skies in the Himalayas. It is dusty on the plains. I like the clear air of northern climes.”

He is from Bengal, in the state of Odisha on the east coast of India. “It is a spiritual place, the city of the Sun Temple of Juggernaut, considered the Lord of the Universe.” The Swami tells the story of the Kalinga War in India, about 2,200 years ago. The ruler Ashoga was struck with remorse after all the killing. He took up Buddhist teachings and became a pacifist.

We go inside. James Traverse introduces the speaker: “The Vedas come from the Upanishads. There is one, the Mandukya Upanishad, which is the shortest and yet it presents the entire teaching of the Vedas. This is the Upanishad regarding the sound OM. The whole point is to overcome suffering and attain true, lasting peace and happiness.”

The Upanishads, a part of the Vedas, are ancient Sanskrit texts that contain some of the central philosophical concepts and ideas of Hinduism. The Upanishads are commonly referred to as Vedānta, sometimes known as “the highest purpose of the Veda.”

The swami steps to the mike. He begins chanting: “OM, Om Shanti, lead us from the unreal to the real, from mortality to immortality.”

He takes us back to his simple life as a monk in India. “Sometimes I yearn for that wandering life. No electricity. You live in a hut, take food in the temple in the afternoon, then walk until dark.”

He has the timing of a stand-up comedian. His talk has not yet started, he suggests. We listen even more carefully.

He tells an ancient story. One day the Emperor Janaka was asleep in his palace. He heard “we are under attack” and called up the army.

There was a vicious battle. His army was defeated and the emperor was captured. He became a pauper begging in his own capital. No-one would help him. One day, begging for some soup, he collapsed from hunger.

Had this been a dream? Or is this life the dream? Is that true or is this true? News spread across the city that the Emperor had lost his mind. He could not govern. The country was at a standstill.

He was visited by a sage. The sage asked, “Emperor, was your life there in both experiences?”

“No,” said the emperor.

“Then neither is true,” said the sage. “But you saw it all. Therefore, you are the truth.”

Janaka understood this in a flash. He became a Brahman, an enlightened one.

In the ancient Bhagavad Gita, part of the Vedas, there is a dialogue between Prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer Krishna. Arjuna is filled with despair about the violence a coming war will cause. Krishna counsels Arjuna to stay on as prince and fulfill his warrior duty through selfless action.

The Gita is at the heart of the “non-dual” Vedanta— enlightenment as self-knowledge. “This is radical,” says the swami. “There is one underlying reality. When you know it, you will be free from suffering. Brahman, limitless, is actually you. The real you is ultimate reality.”


It requires work to investigate our real nature, he says. The goal is moksha — freedom from our limited existence – and the attainment of bliss. To attain bliss you can study the Mandukya, which is based on OM, the sacred syllable.

“I haven’t started my talk yet,” the swami says. We listen more closely. “Here goes,” he says.

“Investigate your own experience of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep,” he continues. “This is not based on faith or a set of practices, such as yoga. It is the direct way – OM. If we are already in bliss right now, we should be able to experience it right now. The real you is the fourth state, awareness, known as turiya. It is like a computer in sleep mode. We cycle through our three states of waking, sleeping and deep sleep. They’re all in you. The fourth state is the reality.”

Naturally, our sense of reality is attached to the state of being awake. “We need to shift to the background awareness,” he says ”This is not something we experience by our senses. It is not an object or a place. You can’t pray to it. You can’t transact with it. You can’t infer it. It is not usable, but it is the basis of all usage. Everything you do depends on the background awareness. It is beyond language. It is beyond thought. It is non-dual. All experiences are made of this. It is unnameable. This language is all negative. It is not this or that. It is you.

You want to trace your awareness back to its source, he says. You are the silence of the universe. It is beyond suffering, which comes from limited consciousness. The problems in life disappear in sleep. My problems persist only in my awareness. We are convinced of a solid world with all his problems. The problems in dreams persist only in dreams, as Janaka learned. This is also true of our waking state.

He chants OM Shanti for a few moments. “I still haven’t started,” he says, keeping us on our toes.


Studying the Vedanta, you need to blend your growing intellectual understanding with meditation, says the swami. The technique is to listen, to question and to reason – and to stay with it. There lies enlightenment.

You and your waking life, name it AH, he says. Your dream life, OO. Your deep sleep, MM. AAOOMM. It is one basic sound. Only the configuration of the lips changes.

The silence after OM represents the fourth state, the underlying silence, the background awareness.

It underlines presence and absence of sound. There is life, dreaming, blankness, silence. We are the background awareness. After that realization, you live in the same world, but you have deep serenity.

A child in the audience asks: “Can you talk to God?”

“Yes,” replies the swami. “The real you is God. God alone existed for a long time. He got bored and wanted to play. God decided to be not God. He forgot he was God. God is searching for God. This is the universe.”

‘You don’t have to do anything. Just remember who you are. This is not a practice. Once you know it, it’s done.’

After the talk, there is a vegetarian buffet. I share an outside table with the swami, a mathematician from New York, a student of philosophy from Switzerland, and a woman who has travelled the world with her husband, a consul.

“Our life is a default setting,” says the swami. “You are centred in mind and body. You don’t have to do anything. Just remember who you are. This is not a practice. Once you know it, it’s done. It becomes effortless, natural.”

We attend to our snacks. It is hot on the deck.

“What does the word ‘I’ refer to?” he asks. ”Not to the body, but to the awareness that we persist. We need to shift our reference to our background consciousness – its vastness. This is our real self.”

More Inspiration: Check out this cool article on moving beyond thought, including during golf!

Author: David Holt is the Managing Editor of Silver Magazine and chief strategy officer of parent brand HUM@Nmedia. An avid kayaker and seeker of knowledge he writes and edits much of our content.

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