Maybe it was the effect of the adrenaline that was about to pump through my system, but I no longer remember why we were in a seedy Queens bowling alley late at night.
Perhaps it was to scope out a location for one of his world records. I just don't recall. Nevertheless, Ashrita and I stood at the bowling alley's front counter -- engulfed in the sour odor of smelly feet emanating from all the used bowling shoes behind the counter -- speaking to the attendant. Well, "speaking" is putting it nicely. In fact, we were arguing.
For some reason, the scumbag behind the counter was giving Ashrita a ration of shit. It quickly devolved into a real confrontation for two reasons. First, the attendant was becoming extremely aggressive. Second, Ashrita -- while not reciprocating the aggression -- was also not intimidated. I stood next to him, ready to rumble and feeling pretty certain it was going to go down that way, but Ashrita was intensely calm.
At one point, when the attendant asked if Ashrita wanted "to take it outside," Ashrita responded by saying "I'm not afraid of you, but I'm not going to fight you either." (I'd only ever heard that line uttered convincingly by one other person: my old pal Charlie.)
Ashrita's self-control gave this guy an out and he seemed relieved that Ashrita hadn't taken him up on the offer to step outside. For the first time, the attendant seemed to notice me. I was standing right next to Ashrita, staring directly at the attendant, adrenaline having already compromised any sense of control I had.
"What are you looking at?" the attendant sneered.
"I don't have any idea," I responded, not breaking my glare. Ashrita then beckoned me away and we left.
I have great respect and admiration for Ashrita. Though we were never destined to be BFFs or engage in a "bromance," we did have a lot in common and I've never met anyone with the kind of conscious mental control over physical and nervous pain and suffering that Ashrita demonstrates on a routine basis.
Like me, Ashrita joined the Center at the ripe old age of 16 (though he's about 11 years older than me and joined the Center in 1970) and he's still there after almost 40 years. Incredible. His name means "protected by God" and Ashrita embraces that meaning like it's some kind of infallible cosmic insurance policy.
I remember one time Guru visited the Rocherolles' place in Stamford, Connecticut, which had a large beautiful yard with a pool and clay tennis court in the backyard. Just beyond the court, however, was a dark pond semi-covered by green moss. When someone asked about it, either Narendra or Durdam replied that it wasn't safe to swim in because it was home to water moccasins. Ashrita overheard the comment and began taking off his shirt as he headed directly for the pond.
The image of Ashrita smilingly emerging from the pond covered in green pond scum is still emblazoned on my mind's eye. Today, when I think of Ashrita -- and the role he might play in the Center of the future -- I'm reminded of Swami Vivekananda.
I'm reminded of Swami Vivekananda's courage. Swamiji had the courage to apply what his own master -- Sri Ramakrishna -- had revealed to him in a way that Sri Ramakrishna himself likely would not have approved of had the master still been alive.
For Ramakrishna's closest disciples, his message could not have been clearer: renounce the world. Give up -- forever -- "women and gold," which words to Thakur were synonymous with "lust and greed." Philanthropy? Service to the world? Thakur saw such endeavors as a vehicle for the aggrandizement of the giver's ego. Such work bound one to the world and was to be rejected.
There was nothing particularly ambiguous about Sri Ramakrishna's thinking on these points.
Nevertheless, within about 10 years after his master's passing, Swamiji -- fresh from his first tour of the world -- organized and established the Ramakrishna Math, dedicated to the twin ideals of self-realization and service to the world. Swamiji's efforts weren't without controversy.
Swamiji's gurubhais weren't pushovers. They weren't necessarily going to fall in line just because Naren said so. They had lived with Ramakrishna, too, and some of them couldn't square a mission of service to the world with Thakur's express words to the contrary. In the end, though, Vivekananda's will prevailed for two reasons: he won the confidence of his brother disciples and, critically, he had confidence in himself.
If the Center is to move forward in the wake of Guru's death, and do so with any relevance in the world, it must embrace a mission of selfless service to the world. To do so, however, will require the leadership of a modern Swami Vivekananda -- someone within the Center who can win both the respect and confidence of his (or her) brother and sister disciples, but also have the kind of supreme confidence in himself (or herself) to move the Center in a direction that Guru himself never would have.
I can't think of anyone other than Ashrita who could meet those two criteria.
Where could he take the Center? What distant land desperately in need of service could challenge Ashrita in the way that America challenged Swami Vivekananda?
Now, I acknowledge the impropriety of laying down a challenge for Ashrita that I myself have not the courage to try. But I'm going to do so anyway.
For ideas, why not start with the United Nations Messengers of Peace program or consider becoming a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador for one of these fine programs?
Or coming up with something really audacious. How about spending some time with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and see if there's a way to act in conjunction with one of its many projects in Africa? Can you imagine the impact a tailored world record attempt in Africa tied in some way to one of these aid or development programs could have?
Not for Guru or the Center, but for the people of Africa.
Ultimately, that was the great genius of Swami Vivekananda. He was confident -- not in his own personality, but in the knowledge that his efforts were the efforts of his master. For that reason, he needn't sing the praises of Sri Ramakrishna on his travels through the world (nor need he feel guilty for not doing so). It was enough to serve and inspire.
That's what he was born to do.
The nice shot of Ashrita above is by Damon Winter of the New York Times. It originally accompanied this article by Corey Kilgannon.