A Mystery of Time, Place & Culture
If you listen carefully on a summer day,
you can hear "magical sounds" drifting down from behind the Tabernacle. At dusk,
sounds of bells and hymns of praise in ancient Sanskrit rise from a peaceful sanctuary
among the rocks and pines. These meditations are reminiscent of a time, a century ago,
when Thousand Island Park was a summer community devoted to the fostering of religious,
social and family values.
Vivekananda was and is an integral part of
Who was Swami Vivekananda and why does a
cottage bear his name? Why do millions of people belonging to different faiths follow his
teachings and those of his great teacher, Sri Ramakrishna? How did a Victorian cottage on
the St. Lawrence River achieve such a spiritual significance?
100 Years Ago
Swami Vivekanandas arrival at the
Main Dock of Thousand Island Park a century ago, on June 18, 1895, was the result of a
convergence of events that would have a lasting effect on millions of people, both here
and abroad. He came to the Park at the invitation of Miss Mary Elizabeth Dutcher, an
artist and cottage owner who had attended his spiritual classes in New York City and was
struck by his strength of purpose.
In preparation for Swami Vivekanandas
arrival, Miss Dutcher added a wing to her cottage for his comfort and privacy. The
three-story addition housed a guest room on the lowest floor, a classroom on the first
floor, and the Swamis room on the top floor which opened onto a porch with a
magnificent view of the river. "WELCOME VIVEKANANDA" read the banner that
greeted him as he entered the cottage for the beginning of a remarkable seven weeks.
Today, one hundred years later, the cottage stands much as it was then, revered as a holy
place by followers of his teachings.
"Sisters and Brothers of
This young and remarkable philosopher-monk,
Swami Vivekananda, was only 32 years old at the time of his visit to the Park, but he was
already a celebrity in America. A follower of Sri Ramakrishna (a Hindu sage who preached
the harmony of all religions and the universality of truth), Vivekananda had arrived in
the United States only two years earlier, in July 1893. He had journeyed from India to
Chicago at the urging of his fellow monks and admirers to represent Hinduism at the World
Parliament of Religions. An unknown monk he had not been invited to attend this
convergence of all the worlds faiths nor, certainly, to speak. However, Professor J.
H. Wright of Harvard University, through a chance meeting with Vivekananda, was so
impressed by this young mans depth of knowledge and charisma that he arranged an
invitation for the Swami to address the entire Congress.
His humble yet electrifying
address came at the end of an opening day of sectarian speeches and completely changed the
tenor of the conference, a conference which is generally regarded as marking the birth of
the inter-faith movement. With the simple words, "Sisters and Brothers of
America," he introduced his all-inclusive message of universal tolerance and
acceptance. He prayed: "As different streams, having their sources in different
places, all mingle their water in the sea; so, O Lord, the different paths which men take
through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to
Thee." Ending with an inspired plea for the end of sectarianism, bigotry and
fanaticism, he was given a standing ovation. As the New York Herald noted: "He is
undoubtedly the greatest figure in the parliament."
A Welcome Retreat
Exhausted by nearly two strenuous years of
lecturing throughout the U.S., Vivekananda was grateful to find refuge at Thousand Island
Park. Here was a place that, from its inception, had encouraged the exchange of ideas in a
setting conducive to contemplation and relaxation. The Park was only 20 years old in 1895,
yet it had already attracted enough people to form a community of 600 cottages. Its
several thousand summer residents supported a program of recreation for both mind and
body, attracting celebrated preachers and speakers as prominent as Susan B. Anthony and
Vivekananda, rejuvenated by the Park,
gathered his spiritual power to train the twelve students, who followed him here. His
thoughts and teachings were transcribed into the collection, "Inspired Talks," a
compilation of ideas that married the East and the West; and which joined the spirituality
of Ramakrishna with his own deep concern for the political freedom and material well-being
of humanity. Unlike the religious mystics of India who were often blind to the suffering
of mankind, he taught the virtue of "seeing God with ones eyes open."
Vivekananda was quick to observe the
contrast between Americas material wealth, scientific knowledge, youthful vigor and
spiritual skepticism, on the one hand, and Indias ancient philosophies of
self-control and contemplation amid physical poverty on the other. He felt that the
American promise of dignity and hope for all could become the social embodiment of his
spiritual beliefs. What the Americans lacked in spiritual wisdom, they compensated for in
"social" advances: hospitals, schools and a society devoid of the
"caste" system he so detested. "We will teach them our spirituality, and
assimilate what is best in their society," he wrote to his friends in India. He
became increasingly aware of the need for social change in his homeland: "What India
needs is not religion, but bread."
The Call of India
Swami said that he was "at his
best at Thousand Island Park. The ideas he refined and expressed there grew,
during the years that followed, into institutions both in India and elsewhere. Yet, this
work would take its told. Upon Vivekanandas return to India in January 1897, he was
denounced by some for his new social and humanitarian teachings, but welcomed by those who
believed in him as the herald of a new age for his country.
Now back at home (though in failing
health), he founded the Ramakrishna Order of India, dedicated to the realization of Truth
through service to humanity. He devoted his time and energy to improve the condition of
Indias masses. He died less than six years later, at the age of 39, exalted by the
credo of his mission: "In work is the Worship of God." In but a short life, he
had spiritually reached so many. Indeed, his humanistic views would profoundly influence
generations of individuals such as Mahatma Gandhi who openly acknowledge his own debt to
The Flame Burns Yet
Today the Ramakrishna Order of India
founded by Vivekananda for the "service of God in Man" has more than 1,000 monks
throughout the world, and millions of followers in India and abroad. In India the Order is
best known for its humanitarian and educational efforts, operating schools and hospitals,
providing social welfare and relief work while also conducting religious and temple
activities. Here in the West, its role has been that of spiritual teaching and guidance,
with 13 Vedanta (Hindu) Centers in North America, 1 in Argentina and 5 in Europe.
The Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New
York has resumed use of the original Dutcher cottage as a summer retreat, and each summer
hundreds of students come to study the ways of Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Thousands
more have made pilgrimage to this site, sacred to many of Vivekanandas followers.
Yet, for over fifty years after Swami left here, the cottage had returned to obscurity. It
was not until 1947 that Swami Nikihilananda, the leader of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda
Center, came to the Park searching for the site of Vivekanandas stay. He found the
cottage in state of total disrepair. Setting an early example for the Park, and in
recognition of the heritage of place, he arranged to purchase the cottage and had it
completely restored to its condition at the time of Vivekanandas visit.
The Torch is Passed
It is now Swami Adiswarananda who has
become the spiritual leader of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center and who conducts the
summer retreats. He is the present representative of Vivekananda in the Park. Born in
Calcutta in 1925, he joined the monastic Order of Sri Ramakrishna in 1954. He served as a
Professor at one the Orders colleges, and later as Joint-Editor of Prabudda Bharata:
Awakened India, a monthly journal on religion and philosophy. He came to the United States
in 1968 to assist Swami Nikhilananda (who died in the Park in 1973). A frequent lecturer,
Swami Adiswarananda has become a valued and admired member of the Park.
The Circle of Life
Tomorrow when we hear the sounds of ancient
Sanskrit hymns drifting down from behind the Tabernacle we will again reminded that
Thousand Island Park is more than a summer resort; it is a spiritual place with a
wonderful heritage of unity that was truly enhanced by the visit of a great teacher who
came here and stayed on in spirit, teaching us that we are all one.
"Various religions are but flowers of
different colors which we should tie with the cord of love into a beautiful bouquet and
offer at the altar of Truth." -- Swami Nikhilananda