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Swami talks about life as we know it

The spiritual leader of a tiny Vedanta church holds forth on karma, zealotry, inadequacy and the viability of human harmony.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 26, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- On a quiet brick street in the Old Southeast neighborhood, a tall, avuncular man in saffron robes sat on an enclosed porch and spoke thoughtfully but authoritatively about God and life.

There was much for Swami Adiswarananda to contemplate: the brutal actions of religion-mad hijackers, serial snipers in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, the inadequacy of religious leaders, the laws of karma and the universal teachings that are the font of all faiths.

"Humanity is potentially divine," Adiswarananda said during a Wednesday morning interview. Unfortunately, he acknowledged, most people fall short.

Adiswarananda, a monk with the Ramakrishna Order of India and head of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York, also functions as the spiritual leader of the Vedanta Center of St. Petersburg, at 216 19th Ave. SE. The center's unpretentious white chapel, built by members and dedicated in 1959, is nestled in a residential area on the edge of Tampa Bay and is a short walk from the Quaker meeting house.

Vedanta teaches that the goal of life is to manifest the divine and that an underlying harmony unites all religions. The faith evolved from the teachings of the Vedas, a collection of ancient Indian scriptures, and was founded by Sri Ramakrishna, who lived in the 19th century. He and his wife, Sri Sarada Devi, are revered by followers. Ramakrishna's foremost disciple, Swami Vivekananda, brought the religion to the United States in 1893. Vedanta followers are not associated with the Hari Krishnas, who became familiar to Americans for their dancing and singing at airports and urban street corners.

Adiswarananda has lived in the United States since 1968. His visit this week to St. Petersburg is one of two he makes each year to meet with the small Vedanta congregation. An advocate of interfaith discussions, Adiswarananda said, however, that such dialogue is not always meaningful.

"We have interfaith breakfasts and then go home," he said.

Religious leaders, the swami said, have to set an example to their flock.

"Religious leaders have the duty to inspire," he said.

"A true spiritual leader has precious knowledge to impart. By the teachers' dedication to spiritual life, they inspire the faithful to follow their lead. What one man can know, another man can know. What one man can do, another man can do."

Adiswarananda said it is wrong to hate another person because of religious differences.

"The very God you worship dwells in that person. By hating that person, you are hating God," he said.

He condemned the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and those behind them. He added that there always will be religious fanatics who misinterpret the teachings of their faith.

Born in West Bengal, India, Adiswarananda holds undergraduate and master's degrees from the University of Calcutta. He joined the monastic Order of Sri Ramakrishna in 1954 and was ordained a monk in 1963. Wednesday, at a house next door to the center, he smiled as he expounded on his faith.

Asked to explain karma, he said: "Good acts produce good results in the future, and bad acts produce bad results in the future. If I hurt you, I will have the same amount of hurting in this life or the future life. That is the law."

But it is a law that can be broken, he said. One way is to do good things for others without expecting a reward.

"You have to have something to give and give without expecting anything," he said.

Adiswarananda said the laws of karma apply even to those who don't believe in reincarnation.

"It is like gravity. You may not believe in it, you cannot see it, but it still applies," he said.

"Good karma brings more good karma, bad karma brings more bad karma. Pain inflicted on others will be inflicted in kind. The hijackers are no exception."

Among the two dozen or so members of the local Vedanta Center is Kathleen Scargill, who lives next to the Vedanta compound with her husband, Ian. She is one of several members who live in the neighborhood.

Mrs. Scargill joined the faith community, founded in 1941 by the Rev. M. McBride Panton and Earnly Panton, almost three decades ago. She said Adiswarananda's visits are highly anticipated.

"Life is hard. Swami's visits encourage and inspire," she said.

"By his holy presence, the mind is made calmer. His teachings give new perspective to daily life. He makes the goal seem reachable. Swami offers refuge and stability. He throws you a lifeline."

Adiswarananda expresses optimism for harmony among people of different faiths.

"All religions must go back to the basics," he said.

"The history, the environment, will force us to live together. . . . We are one, in the soul."

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