My Friendship with Sri Swami Satchidananda: An Embrace That Goes On Forever

c1482RThe president of the Interfaith Center of New York and former Dean of the largest cathedral in the world, Rev. James P. Morton, offered this heartfelt and personal tribute on the occasion of the 90th Jayanthi (birth anniversary) of Sri Swami Satchidananda, celebrated in Yogaville in 2004.

Swami Satchidananda is one of my favorite people. Talking about him is a joy, but it’s also a big job, because it’s like talking about Albert Einstein or Pope John XXIII. These are huge people and Swamiji is in that category of really amazing people. 

Swamiji was the most open, the most welcoming, the most unpretentious human, divine, spiritual creature I’ve ever met; and also very funny. I think the one word to describe him is his openness. There was just no hiding of anything in his being. Once you met him he embraced you, and that embrace goes on forever. 

He had an immense number of people—extraordinary people—that he called his friends. Some of the most brilliant people in the world, and some of the simplest people and the most loving people are his people. And so that’s a very important thing about his openness. He reached out to everybody; just an amazing gang of people who love him and whom he loves so much. 

I want to touch on seven times with him that really are important to me with him. The first was  in 1985 when he and I were on a television talk show together. I had never met him before I met him in the studio that day. It was just the two of us and it was the most marvelous conversation. At the end of it I felt like I had known him forever. We talked about very profound things, but we were laughing all the time we were talking. The thing that’s complicated about so many people who are in religion or in theology, is that there’s so much heavy language; there was never anything complicated between us and the way we thought.

That was such an important thing for me. I was Dean of St. John the Divine in New York at that time and I said, “Swamiji, would you preach at the Cathedral?” He said, “You want me to preach?” “Yes,” I said, “I want you to preach.” And he said, “Yes, I’d love to.” So, there he appeared in all of his peach-robed glory and preached an incredible sermon. One of the things that sort of blew everybody’s mind was that, here is this Hindu in an Episcopal Cathedral at a High Mass. When it came time for communion, Swamiji was right there at the front of the line receiving communion with everybody else.

The third thing was St. Francis Day at the Cathedral. It was a feast of the environment, and everybody in New York came with their bird, their cat, their dog—you name it—they brought it to church. It was an incredible service. It’s like Easter; 6,000 people packing the Cathedral with maybe 3,000 dogs, cats, birds, whatnot. I had Swamiji sit right with me and he was just adoring it! What surprised me slightly at first, is that he arrived with a six-foot python that someone had put around his neck and he would, sort of, lift the snake up from time to time to kiss it and so on. The two of us walked out together, well, the three of us, because it was the Python and Swamiji and myself, arm-and-arm going out. And everybody went nuts in the Cathedral; because here was this holy, holy, holy man with a snake, and me. I’ll never forget that. 

He invited me to Yogaville. My peak moment was driving around with him in his golf cart. Now that blew my mind; we were going around like kids. I’ll never forget it—it was one of the high moments of my life. 

The number five moment was my last Sunday Mass at the Cathedral in December 1996. Swamiji was there with a group of wonderful interfaith friends. Br. David Steindl-Rast was an old Roman Catholic friend of his and mine. Bernie Glassman, who is the essence of interfaith—I mean, a Jewish guy with a beard from New York who is a Buddhist Roshi too—was there. Rabbi Gelberman, was there. Rabbi Gelberman and I always together performed Jewish-Christian weddings. He was forbidden to do it, I was forbidden to do it, and we did it all the time together. It was perfectly marvelous. He was one of the first gang of interfaith people that Swamiji brought to himself. 

Swamiji was the inspiration. And so, there they all were, on my last day as Dean of the Cathedral. My consorting with these extraordinary people of very different traditions from mine, and working together—seeing that the interfaith way was the way—there was no alternative, made me want to do interfaith work itself  and that’s why I started the Interfaith Center.

At the end of my first year at the Interfaith Center, the Temple of Understanding and the Interfaith Center together had a big fund-raiser. We gave the Juliet Hollister Award—which Swamiji and I had received the previous December—so we’re alumni of that association. At this big dinner, we gave the award to Mary Robinson, who was, at that time, the United Nation’s head of Human Rights. Before that she had been the President of Ireland. Just an amazing woman. So she got it and the Dalai Lama got it. There is a wonderful picture of that fancy dinner with Swamiji and myself, and the Anglican Bishop to the United Nations. And then there is the picture of the Dalai Lama and Swamiji having a heavy-duty embrace. That’s a marvelous picture. But that’s the way he was with everybody, total embrace. 

The last time I was with Swamiji was in April 2002 at the Interfaith Center in New York. Sri Chinmoy was there to give Swamiji the U Thant Peace Award. It was a terrific evening. At the end of the evening, Swamiji came up to me and said, “I’ve got a present for you.” I said, “Well, what is it?” And it’s this crazy, wonderful globe, with all the twinkling stuff in it! And, it winds up and plays, “It’s a Small World After All.” It rotates and has all the great monuments of the world: the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal, the Cross in Rio, Stonehenge, the Coliseum, St. Isaac’s in Moscow, the Tower of London, the Parthenon—you name it, it’s there. This was Swamiji’s present to me. And then he passed just a few months later. So I keep it in my office, and it’s marvelous.

These are moments that are so important in my life and I’m honored beyond words to have had him as a close friend, which I still do. Let me end with just touching on three eternal achievements—great, great accomplishments that he has given to the world. 

He was the pioneer of interfaith work. He really lifted it up as the way to be. You’re a Hindu, or you’re a Jew, or you’re a Christian—that’s fine.  And this went into his logo, which is “Truth is One, Paths are Many.” There is one Creator, one universe, one God. There are 900 million ways of getting to that unity and they all have to be respected. And he was the one who really first gave language to that conviction. As a religious man in his own tradition, he welcomed everybody, and that was just amazing. 

The second huge thing is what he’s probably most known for, which is his yoking of mind and body and spirit in Integral Yoga. Integral means bringing it all together, and the Yoga Institutes and teaching courses and the hundreds and hundreds of people that have been through those courses and are much healthier and happier people as a result of that. So Integral Yoga is his second huge, huge contribution to the world. 

The third is the ongoing reality of the community. The community at Yogaville and the incredible LOTUS, which is so beautiful and is itself a Shrine of interfaith because around each petal of the LOTUS is the symbol of a different religion. They are all there under the encompassing LOTUS.

The last thing to note is the ongoing community and the people around the world who have been touched by him and in whom he lives; and we live in him.

For more information about the Very Reverend James Parks Morton, please visit: interfaithcenter.org
(Photo above: Sri Swami Satchidananda and Rev. Morton during St. Francis Feast Day celebration of the animals at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, mid-1980s, New York City.)

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