Hinduism conference in Michigan gives chance for both faithful and curious to learn

Posted: Friday, June 22, 2001

GANGES, Mich. (AP) -- Janet Poole was raised as a Protestant and considers herself a Christian. Recently, however, the 35-year-old has found herself heading East on her spiritual journey.

A few months ago, Poole, an administrative assistant from Naples, Fla., started exploring Hinduism, the world's third-largest religion behind Christianity and Islam and the dominant faith in India and Nepal.

''I'm just discovering all about it, and it's fascinating what I'm learning,'' she says.

Poole hopes to find out even more during a three-day conference running through Sunday at the Vivekananda Monastery and Retreat.

The event, ''Vedanta in the Third Millennium,'' is expected to attract about 500 people to Ganges, a village in southwestern Michigan about 90 miles from Chicago. Ganges was chosen as the monastery's site in the late 1960s because it shares its name with India's holy river.

Vedanta, the philosophical foundation of Hinduism, says all religious traditions are equal, that people's true nature is divine and people do not need to be saved. It also teaches that followers can realize their true nature through selfless work and devotion to God.

The conference will feature worship, meditation, discussions, devotional music and cultural events. Fourteen North American swamis -- Hindu monks and spiritual teachers of the highest standing -- are scheduled to attend the Ganges conference.

''We're just going to kind of examine the role of Vedanta, the Hindu philosophy, in the new millennium, meaning the idea that the millennium represents to a lot of people kind of a new, more spiritual age,'' said Swami Varadananda of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago, which operates the monastery and is organizing the gathering.

Estimates of the number of Hindus worldwide vary, with most researchers putting the figure around 850 million.

About 1 million Hindus live in the United States, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia. The Vedanta Society now has 12 spiritual centers known as ashrams in the United States and one in Canada, and is among many Hindu sects worldwide.

Poole, who met Swami Chidananda of the Vedanta Society of Chicago when she visited his ashram a few weeks ago, said ''just being in his presence is uplifting,'' because of his serenity and confidence in his beliefs.

It's clear Hinduism offers a different world view than Western religions, said Poole, who is still deciding whether to join.

The Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago gets its name from Swami Vivekananda, an Asian Indian who founded the order. He taught that Vedanta's principles, based on ancient scripture, could be applied easily to modern life.

Vivekananda introduced Hinduism to this country in 1893 at the World's Parliament of Religion. The event, held in conjunction with the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was a landmark meeting between religious leaders from Eastern and Western cultures.

Over the next several decades, the Vedanta Society attracted secular seekers interested in yoga, and liberal Christians, drawn by the movement's belief that all religions are equal, according to Diana Eck, a Harvard University professor and author of ''A New Religious America.''

''There's no belief in its superiority,'' said Frank Parlato, a Vedanta scholar and journalist. ''The Hindu always accept other religions as true.''

The Vedanta Society historically has been mainly white, but in the last decade, as more Indians have moved to the United States, many have joined the movement, Eck said. In New York City, for example, Hindu immigrants comprise nearly half the Vedanta congregation, she said.

''The highest level of Hinduism is, we see the spirit of God in everything,'' says Lakshmana Rao, managing editor of the India Tribune, English-language newspaper published weekly in Chicago, New York and Atlanta. ''If you look deep down in your heart, we are all one.''

Shyam Bhatia, a Vedanta scholar and professor of international economics at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Ind., says the Ganges event is aiming to help attendees of all faiths feel more spiritual.

''People all over the world are aspiring for peace and harmony, and we find that religion should ... harmonize people's aspirations and not cause more conflict,'' he said.


On the Net:

Vivekananda Monastery and Retreat:


Hinduism Online: http://www.himalayanacademy.com/

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