By LOVASHNI KHALIKAPRASAD
The monk begins his journey before the sun rises, his orange robes swirl by the brisk winds in the empty streets on Sunday morning. At this time, while he waits for a ride to go to the ashram, his thoughts sometimes drift back to the warm and cheery atmosphere of Guyana, his native land.
But as, Swami Shiveswaranda, travels to his place of worship and the sun rises over Flushing, Queens, he snaps back into his life in New York. He sees people driving out of their driveways, pumping fuel into their cars, going grocery shopping, waiting in queue for the bus, and honking their car horns on a not-so crowded Grand Central highway.
The monk steps out of the van and into the large, red brick building. A sign hovers over the double door entrance, in bold orange letters, that says, The America Sevashram Sangha Inc., Jamaica Queens. The adjoined building, once a synagogue is now an ashram, a place where Hindus go to pray and listen to hymns and readings of scriptures from the monk.
Swami Shiveswaranda makes his way to the opulent altar, where he bows and prays. The altar, where holy rituals are performed is an alluring mélange of colors and an overflow of fragrant incenses. It is decorated with candles, vases, marble floors and ceramic statues of Shiva, Vishnu, and Ganesha among other Hindu manifestations of God. The altar is lavished with flowers, garlands and fruits.
The monk, dressed in orange robes proceeds to the sit on a cushion adjacent to both the altar and the congregants. He puts on his black-rimmed glasses, looks around and listens to the bhajans, devotional songs sang in Hindi by the musicians in rhythm with the drum and harmonium.
Day after day, Swami Shiveswaranda, 53, strives to realize God. His duty as a monk ranges from guiding disciples of the ashram to realize God to being a source of solace to help those in difficult times. It has been a long odyssey from being an outstanding college student in Guyana on his way to medical school to the temple in Queens. But it is all part of his spiritual journey.
It has taken Swami Shiveswaranda 27 years to earn the title of a monk. He has spent his first three years in the ashram. He has then spent ten years as a Bramacharya, one who takes the vow of celibacy in thoughts, words and deeds to attain self-realization. He has spent 14 years living in Cove and John ashram in Guyana before going to Calcutta, India to take an oral exam to achieve the spiritual stage of a monk. He came to the U.S. 11 years ago.
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Moments later, he is introduced as, ‘His Holiness Swami Shiveswarandaji’ to give the day’s reading. He begins his pravachan, which is a combination of lectures on scriptures taken from the Ramayana, one of the two great epics of Hinduism depicting the duties of relationships and portraying ideal characters. His pravachan is based on the acceptance of death.
“Death is hard to take in. It is the reality of life in this world,” Swami Shiveswaranda said to the congregation comprised of almost 50 people including men, women and children of all ages.
“Life is a series of joys, great joys and deep sorrows,” Swami Shiveswaranda he said. Shiveswaranda is referred to as Swami, because he has undertaken the lifetime vow after spending so many years in the ashram. His orange robe symbolizes this vow.
A monk’s vow forbids him from: owning personal properties, eating for pleasure, possessing money, and maintaining personal relationships. Now, he resides in New York where the circumstances are different from his homeland.
Swami Shiveswaranda is not just a sanyasi, a monk who has given up all worldly pleasures and broken all family ties. He has given up his academic goals to live the life of asceticism and risen to the challenges of being a monk in New York.
“There are times when I greatly miss Guyana. The people are more accepting and respectful,” said Swami Shiveswaranda in a soothing tone. The people in New York are respectful and accepting also but they are prone to question everything.
“Once, at the ashram, a father told his eight year old son to bow at the altar, but the boy, asked him why?” continued Swami Shiveswaranda. From young, kids learn to ask questions and reject anything blindly, which is a good thing.
Swami Shiveswaranda talked a little about his family. He has taken the sacred vow, which forbids him from spending his free time with his family. However, he attends religious functions when his brother, sister, niece or nephew celebrate an anniversary, but he is forbidden to stay overnight at their homes.
“It was hard breaking away from my family,” said Swami Shiveswaranda in calm voice. “It was not an instant decision. I was in periods of indecision and anguish,” he said.
He recalls that his dad was sad and his mother wept when he told them about the life he wanted to lead. Both of his parents expected him to be a doctor.
Swami Shiveswaranda, who was originally known as Bhaskar Ramkissoon, graduated from high school with advanced levels and gone on to the University of Guyana where he graduated with a degree in chemistry and a minor in mathematics. He had been awarded a scholarship to attend medical school in Cuba, but he declined because of his devotion to God and his connection to the ashram, which started from childhood.
“He was a brilliant student at the university,” said Sagar Lachmansing a former colleague who is now the vice president at Aurochemicals in Washingtonville, New York. “He was a focused student,” added Lachmansing, 54.
Instead of going to medical school, he has attained a post-graduate degree in education from the University of Guyana. He has taught chemistry, math and physics at the Hindu College for seven years while he was at the ashram. His support throughout his journey sprouts from his Guru, his teacher, Swami Purnananda who encouraged him to get his degree and take the path to serve mankind.
“A person with a degree would be looked on more favorably,” he recalled his guru telling him.
Swami Shiveswaranda no longer thinks about the decision he has made years ago to lead a monastic life. He has overcome that challenge, he nodded his head and said, “I’m much too old for that. I have gone through that phase.”
Swami Shiveswaranda lives at a temple at Woodside Queens, called Divya Dham House of Worship. The New York Times describes the temple as, “a vast temple complex and living history museum.” The temple features a model of the Himalayas and a man-made cave that houses a shrine. Swami Shiveswaranda is not only a spiritual leader. One of the reasons, he has migrated to the United States is to serve as the head monk of Divya Dham, a temple that takes up half a block. He is responsible for the management of the temple, which is opened to the public every day of the year from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
He lives with four other monks in the temple. “They are there when you are in times of difficulties. They give you strength,” Swami Shiveswaranda said. Also, being in ashram on Sunday mornings with the disciples gives him strength.
“He [Swami Shiveswaranda] is an embodiment of knowledge and humility. We’re blessed to have him in our lives,” said Pramela Bipat, 40. “We learn something new each time we leave from here,” continued Bipat who is an ardent disciple of the ashram.
With what started as pure devotion to god as a young boy growing up in a poor neighborhood, Swami Shiveswaranda has followed his heart and achieved spiritual morality. His journey continues north as he leaves the U.S. to attend a religious ceremony in Canada for a week. “Happiness comes from within the inner state of mind,” he added.