Cambridge, MA. Readers may remember that in the season between Epiphany and Lent, I offered a series of seven reflections on Swami Prabhavananda’s Vedanta Hindu commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, our Gospel text at Sunday Mass. I did so because his comments are insightful and spiritual, and because I wanted to exemplify a deeper and longer-term interreligious exchange, such as would also contribute immediately to what we would be hearing and reflecting on in the Christian context each Sunday. But of course, another side indeed of such interreligious learning is to hear from Hindu practitioners themselves, and for this purpose I am delighted to be able to post here an elegant and personal reflection by Pravrajika Vrajaprana, a Hindu nun in the Vedanta tradition who was a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda. She and I welcome further comments from readers. FXC
Pravrajika Vrajaprana writes:
Santa Barbara, CA. As a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda and a Vedanta nun for over 30 years, it has been with great interest that I have read Francis X. Clooney’s “Swami and the Sermon” and the readers’ responses to it. Like Swami Prabhavananda, I, too, have found my life profoundly enriched by the life and teachings of Jesus, and like Father Clooney, I have found genuine insights into my own tradition by learning from a religious tradition different from my own.
Swami Prabhavananda took the teachings of Jesus seriously and he had a particular love for the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, it was through him (and his predecessor, Swami Vivekananda) that I learned to love and deeply appreciate Jesus and his teachings, finding (to my young astonishment) much more relevance there than I had expected.
I was a young, disaffected teenager in the 1960s, who—like many others during those times—was ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it came to religion. To my hypercritical and cynical eye, American Christianity reeked of hypocrisy—there was all too much interest in a dissociative “Sunday religion” or, alternately, in feverish social action, yet little was offered to salve a disheartened but yearning soul. Like all too many others, I was ready to dismiss Christianity as a spiritual dead end.
It was then, at the ripe age of fifteen, that I encountered Swami Prabhavananda and his Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta. I read the book and saw how puerile and spiritually indefensible my easy dismissals were. The book was published out of a series of lectures that Prabhavananda gave on the Sermon, and he chose the topic because of his love for it and because he found in the Sermon a potent source for spiritual transformation. Taken seriously, and Swami did take them seriously, following the precepts of the Sermon would lead a spiritual seeker to the highest spiritual realization.
According to the Vedanta tradition, the goal of life is to have the direct experience of God. Not to “believe” in God, not to subscribe to any creed, but to have the direct experience of God. As Swami Prabhavananda saw it, the central theme coursing through the entire Sermon was that very assertion and he saw in the Sermon a blueprint to achieve that goal: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” To Swami’s mind this translated as: “Seek perfection! Realize God!”
In reading the readers’ comments on “Swami and the Sermon,” there has been some lively discussion concerning Prabhavananda’s assertion that the Sermon was an advanced teaching, directed to Jesus’ most serious and committed followers. The teachings are too hard for many, perhaps for most people, to practice. This has led at least one reader to suggest: "I believe it is a serious misreading of the Sermon on the Mount as if it is not for the ordinary Christian. It is a terrible dichotomy which encourages mediocrity in the followers of Christ. As if the Sermon on the Mount is unrealistic."
Swami Prabhavananda would, I think, contest this. He would reply that just because something is difficult, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. In fact, it’s all the more reason why it should be done. Much of spiritual life is, after all, an uphill battle: we are battling our own egotism, self-centeredness, laziness, fearfulness and sheer bull-headedness in order that we may attain genuine love for God and our fellow beings; in order for us to gain compassion, humility, sincerity, truthfulness and purity. And that’s just the short list.
While the teachings of the Sermon are clear, they are not so easy to implement. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” The follow-through: We must be pure in heart to see God. Does that mean because it’s difficult to become pure in heart that we should not bother to struggle to do so? Hardly. Does that mean that most people will falter on the way or think that it’s an unachievable goal? Perhaps. As Father Clooney wrote in his third installment: “It is a spiritual advance in itself to admit when you cannot in fact live up to the teachings of Jesus.” To which I say, Amen.
The teachings eternalized in the Sermon on the Mount are no more unrealistic than any other lofty ideal. Whether or not these ideals are difficult to attain does not in the least affect the fact that they remain the highest ideals to which humanity can aspire. Most, perhaps, will not make these ideals, and the goal of achieving these ideals, the purpose of their lives. But those who have, have done more to save and serve the world than the tens of millions of others who haven’t bothered to try.
So in this holy Lenten season, let us remember these teachings of Jesus—teachings that have inspired people from every religious tradition the world has known. And let us thank Father Clooney and Swami Prabhavananda for bringing these much-needed ideals to our attention once again.
Sarada Convent, Santa Barbara
Vedanta Society of Southern California