I recently visited the Vedanta Society of Northern California to meet Swami Prabuddhanandaji, the head of the center there. He has been ailing for some time now and I felt that I had to meet and enquire about his health. Meeting him brought back some memories of more than 20 years. I had met him for the first time in March 1991. I had come to the United States for the first time and Swami Sureshanandaji had asked me to meet with him and seek his support for SVYM. Both of them were contemporaries and had joined the Ramakrishna Mission at around the same time. Swami Sureshanandaji had spoken very highly of him and I went to San Francisco and spent a wonderful week with him. Swami Prabuddhanandaji had given me precise directions on how to reach the place on Vallejo Street and I was put up in the old temple close by. I enjoyed the daily interactions with him, Swami Sahajanandaji (who has since passed away), Swami Vedanandaji and the few serious devotees who visited over the weekend. Swami Prabuddhanandaji was very impressed with how SVYM was founded and how Swami Vivekananda had inspired the work all along. He wanted to know what we were doing (not much compared to the activities today) and what our plans for the future were. I was a novice who had no idea of philanthropy management or fund-raising, and Swami Prabuddhanandaji took on the responsibility of mentoring me. He spoke to me on making presentations, preparing suitable PR material and how to build donor networks. He seemed to have an endless list of people he knew across the US and he started introducing me to them. From Ms Barbara Piner, SV Murthy and Radhakrishna in the American Service to India to Ms Raj Prabhakar in Lubbock to Narayanaswamy Gowda and Shaku Shankar and others in the Bay area – he introduced them all to me. Each one of them has visited our projects over the years and has been very instrumental in helping raise funds for us here in the United States.
As I spent time talking to Swamiji who looked frail and weak, I realized the extent of support and encouragement he had been silently giving me over the years. He was the ever-curious person that I had known and wanted to be updated on all the projects that we were undertaking since his last visit to our place. He wanted to know how each person he had met was doing and I was fascinated that he remembered not only their names, but also what they did at SVYM. He was fondly recollecting the visit to the Hosahalli school and the lunch that he had with us on that day. He was very keen on knowing about GRAAM, our latest initiative and wanted to understand how public policy worked in India. His sharp mind and excellent memory reassured me that he was on his way to recovery.
As always, he was the perfect host. He wanted to make sure that I was comfortable in the old temple and that adequate arrangements were made for me. I still remember how I had foolishly underestimated the microclimate phenomenon of the Bay Area and gone unprepared for the unpredictable weather. Swamiji had graciously offered me his coat in 1991 and explained to me the importance and the art of staying warm.
During our conversation, the subject drifted to Swami Achalanandaji, my spiritual mentor. I was telling him how I missed him and how I did not even have a photo of him. Later that evening when I met him to bid farewell and take leave, he showed me three aging black and white photographs of Swami Achalanandaji and himself taken more than 40 years ago. He promised to have them scanned, photo-shopped and sent to me by email.
As I sat on the plane on the way back and thought about all the wonderful people who I have come to meet and interact because of founding SVYM, I felt humbled at the enormous support and encouragement so many have quietly given us. Amongst the many, Swami Prabuddhanandaji stands tall. I remember the nervous presentation that I had made in 1991 at the Vedanta Society after his Sunday sermon. There were nearly 50 devotees and Swamiji had asked me to talk about SVYM and appeal for funds. Little did I know that he had already spoken to a select few on the need to spur me on. He had somehow made sure that people in the gathering would not only give me a patient hearing but also open up their purses and demonstrate their support and commitment to what we were doing. In his own quiet way, he had made sure that I would be encouraged and supported. It was this action of his that give me the confidence to start making presentations all over the United States, and to this date has helped me transcend my own shyness and be bold about asking for support from the hundreds of people who I have met and interacted with subsequently. I felt fortunate that I have had the unique privilege of being guided and supported by such extraordinary people. I had once tried to ask him how was it that he could give so unconditionally and his matter of fact response was “Oh, I am not the giver. All that I am is the instrument that Vivekananda wants all of us to be. And by the way, do not mistakenly think that we are supporting you. It is humanity in general that we are trying to work for. You are also after all only an instrument for this purpose.”
I was touched when Swamiji gently thrust $500 into my hands and told me that I could put it to good use in GRAAM. It was his own way of validating the usefulness of GRAAM and what it could do in the future. I felt reassured and recharged as I embark on this next phase of my life in SVYM.