Words and teachings for difficult transitions
People are always reaching out to Swami Sarvapriyanda, a cordial, gracious, and learned man, to ask for his advice and counsel during difficult times, often to talk about illness, death, and loss. It could be via email or phone or even knocking on the door of the Vedanta Society on the Upper West Side. The order is known for its humanitarian workthat includes responding to natural disasters like floods, fires, and earthquakes, as well as individuals seeking help. “We are almost like first responders on the scene,” Swami tells me. “It’s a huge part of our activity, what is known askarma yoga, the service to humanity, knowing that God is present in humanity.”
When he was new to his role at the Vedanta Society of New York about five years ago, Swami received an email from a woman who said that she wanted to talk to him over Skype. It was one of many requests that the Swami received,so he gently postponed the meeting. He then got a reply saying, “Oh, no. I don’t have time. I am dying. I’ll be gone within a week or two, so I need to speak to you now.” He immediately said yes. It turns out that she was already in hospice care in Canada, dying of cancer. They talked several times. “I don’t know how much I benefitted her, but I benefitted from the interaction,” Swami says.
The woman had been a Buddhist and Hindu practitioner all her life. Though she was elderly, she still had all her faculties about herself. “She was sharp, clear, and dignified,” Swami tells me. “We had conversations about spiritual life, about death. She had accepted that she was going to die very soon, so she was very frank and pulled no punches.” Towards the end, he noticed the grace with which she was facing her mortality and told her that when his time comes he hopes to be able to face it with the same dignity. “I still remember that she had a sort of wry smile on her face when she said, ‘I’m sure you will, Swami.’”
One day she didn’t turn up for the Skype call and Swami knew something had changed. A few days later her niece called him and said that her aunt had passed away. She told him, “The whole room felt lit up, not just by the sunlight streaming into the windows, but there was some kind of radiance in the room, a deep serenity. She was at peace after listening and talking to you.”
Swami felt grateful that he was able to help her, but often when he sees people experiencing great loss, he feels a sense of inadequacy. “I sometimes don’t know how these teaching and philosophies that I talk about are going to help in the face of immense crisis.” He spoke about a chapter in the Bhagavad Gita that references changes and transitions in life, from childhood to youth to maturity to old age, followed by death and a new life, as akin to shedding old clothes and putting on new clothes, showing that death is the end of the physical body but not of the spiritual being. “The teachings somehow help, and I’m very glad for that,” Swami adds, “They always seem to help.”
Swami Sarvapriyananda is a Hindu monk and the minister and spiritual leader of the Vedanta Society of New York.
About the Contributor
Howard Kaplan is an editor and writer who helped found Spiral magazine in 2017. He currently works at the Smithsonian and divides his time between Washington, DC, and New York City.
Artwork by Henk Loorbach