Vedanta in Australia
Vedanta in Australia
(Pictured above in Sydney, 1980s, left to right: Urmila Mehta, Brahmacharini Girija - now Pravrajika Gayatriprana, Thea Maconachie, Pravrajika Ajayaprana, Gerard Brennan).
EVEN during Swami Vivekananda’s lifetime ardent Vedanta students were active in Australia. The Swami’s brother monk, Swami Shivananda entrusted Mrs.Elsie Pickett, an Australian lady whom he had taught in Sri Lanka, with the task of taking Vedanta to Australia in 1898. And she did it very successfully. Still, due to lack of proper follow up the vigour of this early Vedanta work in Australia slowly faded away.
Just over two years later a Swedish lady, Sister Avabhamia, was commissioned by her guru, Swami Abhedananda, to carry the torch of Vedanta and the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda to Australia. She was a powerful woman. Her work of 3 years made a deep impact on many of the educated minds of the time, both in Australia and New Zealand. She even started some journals which ran successfully for some years. But this work also did not flower into something longstanding due to lack of support from the Headquarters in India and so the Sister left the country never to return.
A young man, James Wale from Sydney, inspired by a vision and the strange name of Vivekananda ringing in his ears, found his way in 1927 to Belur Math (Headquarters of the Ramakrishna Order) in Kolkata to seek shelter at the feet of Swami Shivananda, the then abbot of the monastery. Accepted as a novice and given the monastic name: Vivek Chaitanya, the young monk, unfortunately, had to return to Australia because of shattered health. Residing in North Sydney, he led an austere, service-minded life. Known affectionately to locals as ‘Father Wales,’ he acquainted many with the high ideals of Vedanta until his passing away in 1951. Eighteen years later a very significant chapter in Vedanta’s history was opened when Swami Ranganathananda (the late President of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission) appeared on the Australian horizon.
The Swami paid his first visit to Australia in 1968, regularly visiting Australia annually or biannually till 1986. Through parlour talks, public lectures, Retreats and media interviews the Swami generated a lot of interest in Vedanta. During an early visit the Swami was the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘Guest speaker of the week’ addressing a National radio audience. The Swami also appeared on a popular National television show, interviewed by respected journalist and host, Ray Martin.
Plans for a Ramakrishna Order Centre in Sydney
“A Vedanta Society in any country is a happy proposition. It is a very rational system. There is no sensation or mystery-mongering in Vedanta. Only calm, silent spirits can understand and profit from it and I am very glad to see that in Australia there are people who think in this way.”
These were words of clarification and encouragement from the address given by Swami Ranganathananda, on June 9, 1974, at the inaugural meeting of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of New South Wales1. The Swami was visiting Australia on his annual world lecture tour. The meeting was held in the home of Mrs.Vilma Spencer[i] who played a crucial role in the pioneering work for the Vedanta movement in Australia. She had already started a Vedanta Book Agency to assist the spread of Vedanta and Ramakrishna/ Vivekananda literature. The Book Agency succeeded in this and provided a point of contact between people with a common interest, interested enough to now be present at this inaugural meeting of the Society. The Swami went on to say:
“It is not giving you one more religion to add to the number of religions that are already here—it will give you a certain philosophy of life, where life and religion are integrated in a comprehensive spiritual outlook. This kind of contribution is vital to a country like Australia. Its history is not like other countries, it is a new land. People came from many other countries bringing with them [other] cultural ideas, but as yet it doesn't have a distinct personality of its own, it is still reflecting the personality of English culture and other cultures. Now is the time for Australia to begin to develop a personality of its own.”
The Swami concluded with this observation:
“The work of Vedanta is to unite humanity by exchanging tested human values of Eastern and Western cultures. This kind of an intellectual, spiritual and comprehensive approach to contemporary human problems is what you get in the name of Vedanta, in the name of Ramakrishna. Australia will be very fortunate if it can advance along these lines and benefit from this profound thought of India which is the most precious gift that India has to offer to her own children and to the rest of the world.”
The Interim Management Committee appointed at the meeting was given the responsibility of drawing up a constitution and having the Society registered as a charity. A primary objective of the Society was to get a permanent Centre established in Sydney under the direction of a monastic member of the Ramakrishna Order. Originally this was anticipated to be a monk of the Ramakrishna Math, which already had a number of overseas Centres - some existing for more than 100 years[ii] - but as the international demand for monks far outstripped supply, the prospect was that it might take many years for our need to be met. Then, to the surprise of all, Swami Ranganathananda suggested that Sri Sarada Math be approached to send a nun to start a centre here!
[i] The inaugural meeting took place in the home of Mrs.Vilma Spencer at her Cronulla home. She hosted Swami Ranganathananda’s visit on this occasion as she did on his further 11 visits to Sydney from 1975 to 1986.
[ii] It should be mentioned here that in the year 2000 two monks – Swamis Sridharananda and Atmeshananda were sent by Belur Math, Headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, to open a Vedanta Centre in Sydney at the earnest request of many devotees. The Centre has been going well and branch Centres have been opened in other major cities of Australia.
Pravrajika Ajayaprana visits Australia
A formal request was made to the Trustees of Sri Sarada Math for a sannyasini (nun) to be sent to Sydney with the sponsorship of the Society. After many requests it was decided to send Pravrajika Ajayaprana, then head of the Sri Sarada Math's Trivandrum Centre in Kerala, India, on a visit to Australia. She arrived at Sydney airport on May 22, 1977 to a warm welcome. She stayed in the home of a close devotee, Mrs. Elizabeth Yates, in Paddington and gave weekly classes on the Bhagavad Gita and Swami Vivekananda’s Bhakti Yoga in the Vedanta Bookshop. The Bookshop had been opened in 1976 at 44 Harrington Street, in the historic 'Rocks' area of Sydney through the dedicated work of Mrs.Vilma Spencer. It served as a focal point for the spread of Vedanta in Sydney providing a venue for the devotee members to congregate.
Pravrajika Ajayaprana’s initial visit lasted just over six months because Sarada Math required her to share her time between Sydney and their Centre in Trivandrum. She departed for India on December 6, 1977. Her second visit was for three-months from May 7 to August 7, 1979.
During these two visits a loving relationship developed between her and the members and friends of the Society. She was accepted as a spiritual guide and teacher by many full of practical advice for dealing with life’s difficulties.
Permanent Centre Established & The Early Years
Finally, after a campaign of letters and visits to Sri Sarada Math’s Headquarters in Kolkata, Sri Sarada Math agreed to send Pravrajika Ajayaprana and an assistant nun, Brahmacharini Gayatriprana, to establish the first Centre of the Math outside India. They arrived in Sydney on a cool, rainy afternoon on 19 April, 1982.
During the first few years the nuns and the fledgling Society faced many disruptions, moving from one rented property to another struggling to raise funds while grappling with ever increasing rent. The Vedanta Book Shop had been closed with the books stored and on display at the nunnery.
Finally, in July 1985 the Society purchased a house at 5 Quandong Avenue, Burwood, which served as the “Sarada Tapovan” nunnery for the next 10 years. But the Society was still in need of a venue for the classes and talks. This problem was solved on Wednesday, September 16, 1987, when the Society acquired a Meeting Hall at 15 Liverpool Road, Croydon, in the historic Malvern Hill Heritage Estate. Alderman John Lutman, the Mayor of Burwood, performed the opening of “Vedanta Hall” on Sunday November 22, 1987. Welcoming the Society and Pravrajika Ajayaprana to the community he shared some interesting facts:
“..[Burwood] is often called the city of churches. It is a place where people wishing to pursue religious practice and religious freedom tend to gravitate to for some reason. I guess one of the reasons is that it is a very old area, some 120 years old now and it had plenty of time to get used to the manifold ways in which people wish to pray to whomsoever they wish to pray to. … you have begun in the midst of one of the biggest ethnic areas in Australia where probably at least six or seven out of ten have a background of being born outside Australia. That is a phenomenal number … So, you are welcome … on behalf of the city you join, the city of religious pursuit, you should feel very much at home.”
In Pravrajika Ajayaprana’s speech she observed:
“Australia is a child in the history of the world. That is its beauty; that is its good fortune, because a bright future, a vast region to explore is before it. It can model its future in any way it likes.”
In 1990 the Society purchased a rural property, Darama, near Robertson in the Southern Highlands to be used as a Retreat Centre, tranquil and private setting appreciated by all. In 1997 a larger house was required for the Sarada Tapovan nearby in Burwood Heights.
Sadly, the annual lecture tours to Australia by Swami Ranganathananda concluded in 1986. These visits were a spiritual festival giving a push to the continuing efforts to develop the new Sarada Math Centre. Other inspiring visitors were, in 1985, Pravrajika Dhiraprana, then head of the Sarada Math Centre in Thrissur, Kerala. Pravrajika Satchitprana also came at that time from Kolkata staying for three months and giving talks and classes while Pravrajikas Dhiraprana and Ajayaprana visited the Vedanta Centres in the U.S, the first Sarada Math nuns to visit America.
In 1982 and 1986 Swami Bhuteshananda, then Vice-President of the Ramakrishna Math & Mission, visited Australia.
Pravrajika Amalaprana, Assistant Secretary of Sarada Math at that time, visited Sydney and Adelaide in 1995. She visited Sydney again, now as General Secretary, in March 2007. Pravrajika Vimalaprana, a senior nun in the Thrissur Sarada Math stayed for three months in Sydney in 2005.. Pravrajika Prabuddhaprana, an American nun stationed in the Sarada Math Headquarters in Kolkata stayed for six months in 2006 while Pravrajika Ajayaprana was recovering from a major operation. She gave several of the weekly talks in Vedanta Hall. She had also visited Sydney for six weeks in 1997
Pravrajika Satchitprana visited Sydney and Adelaide for her second visit to Australia in 2010.
Pravrajika Vivekaprana visited Sydney and Adelaide in 2013 participating in numerous events in celebration of the 150th Birth Anniversary of Swami Vivekananda.
Interstate & Intrastate Activities
Once or twice a year Pravrajika Ajayaprana visited Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth. Retreats, public lectures, parlour talks and classes were arranged. Many people from diverse backgrounds benefited from these activities. Due to the great interest in Vedanta in Adelaide a group of devotees formed the Ramakrishna Sarada Vedanta Society of South Australia with Pravrajika Ajayaprana as the President. Pravrajika Ajayaprana visited Adelaide up to three times a year. In between her visits the devotees met together in a house and held a one and a half hour session every second Sunday morning according to a programme chalked out by her. The Carter family made their home in the Adelaide Hills available for all the sessions. They were very active in all of the Society’s activities. Subsequently Nermalla Koo and husband, David, have been hosting the fortnightly meetings in their spacious home in the Adelaide suburbs.
From 1983, Pravrajika Ajayaprana visited Newcastle, a two hour drive north of Sydney. A close group of devotees including the Kaushik, Dave, Darbar and Bhandari families hosted, by turns, a Saturday class four times a year on the Vivekachudamani (Crest Jewel of Discrimination) given by Pravrajika Ajayaprana. On many occasions she also gave a talk the following day at the Hindu Temple in Newcastle.
The news that a Sarada Math Centre had been established in Australia reverberated throughout the Ramakrishna Movement World. In Malaysia it was greeted with particular interest. Soon earnest invitations came for Pravrajika Ajayaprana to visit Malaysia for a lecture tour. Since 1985 she visited Malaysia at first, almost every year, and more recently, every second year. These visits were organized by Toh Puan[i] Uma Sambanthan, and Mr.R Jayasekar. Both have worked tirelessly for the Ramakrishna Movement in Malaysia for many years. Pravrajika Ajayaprana also visited Sri Lanka twice, giving talks and visiting areas affected by the 2004 Tsunami.
[i] A title bestowed on only a few women in Malaysia. Her late husband was the President of the Malaysian Indian Congress. He was a federal minister with the first Government of Independent Malaysia for many years and was very devoted to the Ramakrishna Movement.
A Major Transition – Rev.Pravrajika Ajayaprana Mataji Returns to India
After twenty-nine and a half years it was with great sadness that the Society faced a painful and inevitable transition following Rev.Pravrajika Ajayaprana Mataji’s decision to spend her remaining years in India. On September 22, 2011, she departed Sydney with the satisfaction that the Sarada Math Centre here is well established. She now lives in the Sarada Math Centre in Thiruvananthapuram started by her in 1973.
Swami Vivekananda’s 150th Birth Anniversary Celebrations
The grandest, most public event staged jointly by the Ramakrishna Sarada Vedanta Society of NSW and the Vedanta Centre of Sydney run by the monks, was the staging of the play: Oneness: Voice Without Form at Sydney Opera House on 17 and 18 September, 2013 - a play celebrating the life and teachings of Swami Vivekananda, a part of the worldwide celebrations of his 150th Birth Anniversary.