History of the New York Vedanta Society
The Vedanta Society of New York was the first Vedanta Society in the West.
It was established by Swami Vivekananda.
Swami Vivekananda came to NY in the first week of April, 1894, where he had been invited by a group of friends---Mrs. Arthur Smith, Dr. and Mrs. Egbert Guernsey, and Miss Helen Gould. It was from here that he began his "parlor lectures" in the homes of the rich.
After a visit to Boston during the second and third week of April, he returned to New York and on April 24, at the Waldorf Hotel, he gave his first lecture in NY on "India and Hinduism" before Mrs. Arthur Smith's "Conversation Circle".
On May 2 at the home of Miss Mary Phillips, at 19 West 38th Swamiji gave his second lecture in New York . Miss Phillips, who attended his lecture at the Waldorf Astoria, went on to become one of his "eager workers" and later offered him her hospitality and help. Her home became a sort of headquarters for his work in New York .
Among those who attended Swamiji's first lectures were Miss Emma Thursby, the well known singer who became a member of the New York Vedanta Society, and Leon Landsberg, who was to become one of Vivekananda's first monastic disciples in the West.
Vivekananda left the Boston area in October and after a tour of Baltimore and Washington, arrived back at New York around November 3 or 4th.
By the end of November he started the Vedanta Society, an informal, group without registration. It served as a means for managing his financial needs. In time the Society became concerned with the religious and philosophical aspects of the work and assisted in the publication of his works.
Following a visit to Boston during December, Vivekananda returned to New York on December 28, 1894 as a guest of the Brooklyn Ethical Society. At the Pouch Mansion in Brooklyn , he gave his first of several lectures for the Ethical Society on December 30, 1894.
Within a few weeks, assisted by Leon Landsberg, Vivekananda established his first headquarters in America in two rented rooms at 54 West Thirty-Third Street . There he held regular classes starting Sunday, January 27,1895.. Among Vivekananda's first few students were Miss Sarah Ellen Waldo who became one of his disciples and editor of some of his works. Miss Josephine MacLeod and her sister Besse Sturges, met him here on January 29th, 1895. Here he also met Mr. Francis H. Leggett, who later married Mrs. Sturges and remained a friend and supporter of Swamiji and the Society.
Vivekananda taught classes in his rooms from January to June 1895 and in June after a visit to Camp Percy with Francis Leggett, Mrs Sturges and Miss MacLeod, he went to Miss Elizabeth Dutcher’s summer cottage at Thousand Island Park on the St. Lawrence River and taught 12 of his disciples who came mostly from his NY classes .
He returned to New York on August 7,1895 and stayed at the home of Miss Mary A. Phillips at 19 West 38th Street . From New York he left shortly afterward for France and then to England , then returned to New York on December 6,1895.
Swami Kripananda and The Vedanta Society then rented rooms at a lodging house at 228 West 39th Street . There the Swami also lived when he returned to NY. This was the same house where Landsberg stayed for a few months earlier in the year. It was also where, during Vivekananda's stay in England , Kripananda held classes in November under the auspices of the Vedanta Society.
Vivekananda resumed his classes, twice daily, four days a week, and a question-and-answer class on Sundays.
In December, 1895, Josiah J. Goodwin was enagaged as a stenographer and, as Vivekananda delivered discourses on the four Yogas in his classes---Bhakti, Jnana, Karma, and Raja---they were recorded by Goodwin and later published by the Vedanta Society and others as his now-famous Yoga books.
From December 9, 1895 through February 25, 1896 Vivekananda delivered seventy classes and ten public lectures - much of these being incorporated into his Yoga books.
Vivekananda delivered his final lecture in New York on February 23, 1896, and, under the auspices of his Vedanta Society.
Vivekananda, accompanied by Goodwin went to Detroit on March 3, 1896. After a visit to Boston and Chicago , he returned to New York on April 11 and left America for his second visit to England on April 15, 1896.
During his visit to England the previous year, Vivekananda had asked Sharat, (Swami Saradananda) to come to England and he came and spent some time with Vivekananda in England . With Goodwin, Saradananda came to America and continued the American work. He arrived in New York the first week of July, 1896, and was brought by Goodwin to Boston as a guest of Mrs. Bull.
In summer, the activities shifted from NY to the Greenacre Conference in Maine and on July 7th, 1896, Swami Saradananda delivered his first lecture in America He then lived in Cambridge at the home of Mrs. Bull.
In October, 1896, Swami Saradananda delivered his first lecture in New York before the Brooklyn Ethical Association and began classes in New York in his room at 509 Fifth Avenue , above Forty-Second Street . When the room over-flowed, the landlord allowed the class to move to a ground floor hall---the New Century hall---where the Swami held Sunday morning lectures. He was delivering six lectures a week and traveled and taught between New York , Greenacre, and Cambridge .
As Saradananda prepared to return to India to assist Vivekananda who was in India, Swami Abhedananda arrived in NY in August 1897, and assumed the leadership of the Vedanta Society.
After his arrival in New York Swami Abhedananda began classes.
On February 21, 1898, in the premises of their rented Lexington Street address of the Society, the West celebrated the first birthday celebration of Sri Ramakrishna.
Between September 29, 1897 to April 30, 1898, Abhedananda delivered eighty-six lectures.
Swami Abhedananda incorporated the New York Vedanta Society under the laws of the State of New York on October 28, 1898. Mr. Francis Leggett became the President of the Society on its formal registration.
Abhedananda lived and held classes in rented houses and apartments, and for public lectures rented bigger halls in the city.
Meanwhile Vivekananda returned to America on August 28, 1899, with Swami Turiyananda. On arriving in New York , he proceeded to Ridgely Manor, as the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Leggett. He came to New York from Ridgely on November 7, 1899.
The Vedanta Society occupied a parlor floor of a narrow, four-story house at 146 East Fifty-Fifth Street (between Lexington and Third Avenues) and was the first permanent Vedanta Headquarters in New York .
Opened on October 15, 1899, this Center had a library, weekday lectures, classes and private interviews were held regularly, and had a regular meditation hour.
For the Sunday lectures, where attendance numbered around three hundred, Swami Abhedananda lectured in a rented public hall.
Vivekananda stayed in New York for two weeks, residing at the New York residence of the Leggetts and Dr. Guernsey. He often came to the Society's headquarters; held question-and-answer classes at the regular weekly meetings; and came at other times to talk with the students. Two weeks later he went to California .
Swami Turiyananda moved to New Jersey and stayed at MontClair , and assisted Swami Abhedananda at New York , until he was called by Vivekananda to California .
By April, 1900, Swami Abhedananda opened a membership roll for the New York Society. The Society with support from its members was able to rent an entire house for its headquarters. In the spring of 1900 the Society moved from its rooms at 146 East Fifty-Fifth Street to a modest four-story house at 102 East Fifty-Eighth Street , just off Park Avenue . When Swami Vivekananda arrived on June 7,1900, after his trip to the West Coast he stayed at this home.
During this stay at the breakfast table one morning he sketched on the back of an envelope, a design of an emblem that was to become the official seal of the Ramakrishna Order.
On July 26, 1900, he left the west for the last time and returned to Europe and finally to India .
By 1901, Swami Abhedananda audiences for lectures were as many as six hundred. In addition he held classes on Raja Yoga and other subjects. From 1902 onward, he began to pay occasional visits to England and Europe . In April, 1905, the Society began publication of the Vedanta Monthly Bulletin. At the time, the address of the Society was listed as 62 West 71st. Street. By 1906 the books and pamphlets published by the New York Vedanta Society reached 50,000.
Another assistant was needed and Swami Brahmananda sent Swami Nirmalananda who arrived in New York on November 25, 1903. A Vedanta Center was opened in Brooklyn on January 30, 1905 under Nirmalananda and he lived there without much success until called back to India in January, 1906. A second short-lived Center was opened in Washington , D.C. in early 1905 following a visit by Abhedananda.
In April 1906, Swami Bodhananda, a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, arrived as assistant to continue the work in New York , as Swami Abhedananda left for a trip to India , the first since he had left India in September of 1896.
Swami Abhedananda returned to America in November, 1906, accompanied by another of Vivekananda's disciples Swami Paramananda.
On March 2, 1907 the Vedanta Society of New York acquired with a loan its first permanent home at 135 West Eightieth Street . Swami Abhedananda also purchased a 370 acre farm-house in Berkshire Connecticut to serve as a retreat for Vedanta students. In January a Center was established in Pittsburgh. Swami Bodhananda left New York to take charge of the new Center.
Abhedananda's approach contrasted with Swami Paramananda’s traditional "Master-Disciple" attitude. In 1909, Swami Paramananda left New York to take charge of a new honourary that started in Boston .
During an extended tour in Europe by Abhedananda, the financial base of the Society declined, the principal cause being a fall in attendance following the Swami's absence. Abhedananda's growing role as world teacher, following his success in Europe and America , began to come in conflict with the immediate demands of the NY Society and its membership.
In May, 1910, Swami Abhedananda left the New York Society permanently. The membership had fallen (from 200 in 1906 to 50 by 1926). It could not make the payments on the loan based on contributions and The Society rented out most of the rooms in the building to pay the mortgage.
Swami Bodhananda closed down the Pittsburgh honourary in October of 1912 and returned to take charge of the New York Society. For forty years, thereafter Swami Bodhananda, assisted periodically by younger Swamis sent from India , sustained the society. He was the first Indian monk of the second generation to take charge of the Society.
The Vedanta Society ultimately gave up the Eightieth Street home of the Society in June 1915. And moved to 236 Central Park West. From here, Swami Bodhananda focused on re-building the Society with a small, committed group of devotees.
In 1921, through a gift from one of his students, Miss Mary Morton, daughter of Levi P. Morton, ex-Governor of New York and Vice President of the United States during the term of President Benjamin Harrison (1888-1892), the Vedanta Society purchased outright a house a half a block from Central Park . With ample space for an auditorium and a new chapel, the Vedanta Society of New York moved to its present location at 34 West Seventy First Street .
Over time, the Vedanta Society provided one of the first complete libraries of Hinduism and Vedanta literature in America , it served as a major library and publication house of Vedanta literature in the West, and the headquarters of Vedanta as a global movement, to both America and Europe .
It also served as a training ground for new Indian Swamis sent to serve as monastic leaders to the West. The New York Vedanta Society received a number of young Swamis from India , who after an initial period of training through assisting Swami Bodhananda, went to other parts of the country to establish and expand the mission of Vedanta.
Swami Raghavananda arrived in June, 1923 and assisted Bodhananda, while at the same time developing Vedanta in Philadelphia . Ill health forced him to return to India in 1927. Swami Gnaneshwarananda, a disciple of Swami Brahmananda, came to New York in 1927. After two years, he left for Chicago where he was to start a new Vedanta Center . Also in 1927, Swami Bodhananda, on the request of Swami Paramananda, found time to nurse and take care of the young Swami Akhilananda, whose health had deteriorated while in Boston . In the meantime, Swami Devatmananda who had arrived at New York worked in NY until 1932 when he moved to the West coast to work at the Portland Center .
In 1931 Swami Nikhilananda, a disciple of the "Holy Mother," who had received his monastic vows from Swami Saradananda, arrived and Bodhananda decided to hand over to him the leadership role of the NY society and retire. Swami Nikhilananda style conflicted with Swami Bodhananda’s ideas and Bodhananda came out of retirement and resumed leadership. Swami Nikhilananda meantime was induced by his own following of devotees to start his own Center in New York . He founded the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre in 1933 at 200 West Fifty Seventh Street which later moved to its present location off Fifth Avenue in 1939.
Meanwhile, the Vedanta movement started in California by Vivekananda in San Francisco by the efforts of his brother disciples, Swamis Turiyananda and Trigunatitananda grew as did Centers in Boston , Chicago , Los Angeles , Seattle , St. Louis , and Portland .
In New York , Swami Bodhananda working with a small group of devotees, among whom were the Genêt sisters---Jeanne and Rolande from French-Canada---continued for forty-four years, until he passed away in New York on May 18, 1950.
Swami Pavitrananda arrived in New York in February, 1951, to assume charge of the Society. Preceding his arrival, for a brief period the classes of the Society were maintained under the President Abraham Reiger and Secretary Delia Stebbins. Swami Pavitrananda served as spiritual leader of the Vedanta Society of New York for twenty-six years until he passed away following an extended illness at age 81 on November 18,1977.
He continued the traditions of the past fifty years since Vedanta had first come to America . There was a regular schedule of Sunday public lectures, Tuesday night general classes with question-and-answer periods, and other evenings of library sessions, the latter primarily for the members. Swami Pavitrananda was also a member of the governing body of the Ramakrishna Mission---the Executive Board of the organization. Among his books are "Common Sense About Yoga" and "Modem Man in Search of Religion".
When Swami Pavitrananda began his work, membership hovered around the sixty mark; and the annual budget was in the vicinity of nine or ten thousand dollars, with occasional appeals and fundraising drives for special projects such as improvements to the building, the original chapel in the Society's building was renovated.
Following the tradition of the Vedanta Center since the time of Swami Abhedananda, the Society continued to celebrate the birth anniversaries of Shri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi, the Holy Mother. In 1953, the society celebrated the Birth Centenary of the Holy Mother and the meeting was a great success. Swami Pavitrananda accepted invitations to address groups outside of the Vedanta Center such as Colleges, Universities, Churches, and other institutions involved and interested in the study of Vedanta.
In 1962, the Center started a new tradition, the celebration of the life and works of Swami Vivekananda on the Fourth of July held every year at Moss Hill Farms in upstate New York .
In 1971, through the Swami's initiative and Courtney Olden, a senior office-bearer of the Vedanta Society, the Society property was placed under legal "church status" as regards exemption from taxes. Swami Pavitrananda was also able to raise money from members of the Society for special projects, such as renovations, rebuilding of the Library, repairs and furnishings of the Society's rooms, etc.
On November 18,1977, Swami Pavitrananda passed away.
With Swami Pavitrananda's declining health, Belur Math sent to New York in 1977, Swami Tathagatananda, a disciple of Swami Virajananda---to assist him. After the passing away of Swami Pavitrananda, he served as the monastic leader of the Society.
Books by Swami Tathagatananda:
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.