The Venue: Srimad Bhagavatam class, 1975, in New Vrindaban Farm Community. It’s 5:30 AM on a chilly morning. The temple room is packed with curious New Vrindaban residents — hardly anyone over 25 years old — eager to hear the visiting American sannyasi who has been successfully preaching in India.
Acyutananda Swami wasted no time. His fiery takedown of Mayavada philosophy was highlighted by his experiences in India with wit, candor and righteous indignation. Acyutananda roasted the heralded 19th century Indian monk, Swami Vivekananda, who reportedly said, ”Why worship the Tulasi plant? Better to worship the eggplant! At least you get an edible fruit from the eggplant!”
Ouch! How dare those Mayavadis denigrate the sacred Tulasi plant!
Acyutananda knew the details. He cited Swami Vivekananda’s monistic interpretation of the Vedas, his belief in a formless God and his deprecation of Deity worship. Both Western and Eastern historians credit Swami Vivekananda with popularizing Hinduism throughout America and Europe. Upon returning to India, Vivekananda was celebrated as a patriotic saint whose “karma-yoga” message — “work is worship” — was hailed as the solution to India’s poverty.
Not so fast. There’s a skeleton in the closet. The pop culture interpretation of Swami Vivekananda’s elevation to sainthood is jaded by questionable political maneuvering and a suspect money trail of support.
A quick history lesson is in order. When Great Britain first landed on the Indian sub-continent in the mid-1700’s, India was the wealthiest country on earth. 28% of all world trade was conducted through India. By the time the Brits left, 250 years later, India was reduced to poverty and constituted only 2% of world trade.
Killing village India and replacing it with industrialized India required a streamlined version of Hinduism. Enter Vivekananda, recently returned from witnessing America’s late 1800’s industrial boom frenzy. To the delight of the Ramakrishna Mission’s British benefactors, Swami Vivekananda delivered just the message the English overlords could literally bank on: WORK — COMPETE — GET AHEAD — ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT IS THE FUTURE. And most importantly: We are all ONE.
As Acyutananda pointed out: “Vivekananda’s mission was more about spreading the mode of passion to India than spreading the mode of goodness to the philosophically naïve West.”
His class was transformational. We felt emboldened. We sensed a mission-driven reinterpretation of what it meant to live in a village of all young devotees that Srila Prabhupada named New Vrindaban. We were not individually or collectively God. We were not mayavadis.
Srila Prabhupada had saved us from what he called “impersonalist calamity.” And we were determined to show our gratitude by building a memorial — Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold — as proof that a bunch of fired-up twenty year old American kids — guided by the philosophy of personal theism — could perform a miracle.
A reporter once asked my god brother, Nityodita Prabhu, “How were a group of untrained people able to build a palace?” He replied, “We didn’t build the palace… the palace built us.” If the sweet taste of empowerment can move mountains and build palaces, it can certainly replace eggplant-dharma with varnashrama-dharma.