Even for older Americans, it’s tough to remember times when Hinduism and its various offshoots didn’t yet claim many followers in the New World. The popularity of Eastern religions and meditation practices in the West certainly boomed as a result of the Beatles’ embrace of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s. But even before that, most Americans had at least some remote notion of what a yogi was, if only from seeing cartoons of skinny men in turbans lying on a bed of nails. And it’s now common knowledge that the American Transcendentalist writers of the first half of the 19th century – Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, Margaret Fuller, Dickinson, Whitman – were profoundly influenced by their readings of the Vedas and other classical Hindu writings.
So it’s enlightening (if such a spiritually loaded word may be used so lightly) to discover that it took a Parliament of the World’s Religions, staged as part of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, to make Hinduism a household word in America, and its practitioners seen as admirable rather than alien and threatening. The universally acknowledged rock star of that gathering of international spiritual leaders was a charismatic Bengali monk called Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who electrified the assemblage and the national press with his soaring oratory and his message of “tolerance and universal acceptance.” The New York Herald wrote of his speech there, “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.”
Born Narendra Nath Datta, Vivekananda was by all accounts a brilliant youth with a steel-trap memory who studied Western philosophy and science as well as Eastern philosophy. His religious career started out in the Brahmo sect, which rejected polytheism in favor of a “formless” deity. But then he fell under the spell of the great 19th-century mystic Ramakrishna, who revived the Vedanta tradition and is regarded in modern India as a saint. He went on to become Ramakrishna’s chief disciple. Both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda regarded the Divine Mother as the deepest expression of godhood and service to humankind as the truest form of service to the divine; argued for the elimination of the caste system in India; and taught that all religions are legitimate paths to the same spiritual goal.
Vivekananda’s teachings about social justice are widely seen as having helped to inspire the Indian people to rise up against British Colonial rule and reclaim their national identity. His ideas influenced such luminaries as Gandhi, Chandra Bose, Sri Aurobindo and Rabindranath Tagore. In India today, he remains a hero of the first order: Airports and universities are named after him, National Youth Day is celebrated on his birthday and World Brotherhood Day on the anniversary of his famous speech to the Parliament of World Religions.
By the time he made his first trip to America in 1893 to represent the Hindu way at the Parliament, Vivekananda’s message was already attracting many devotees from Western countries. (The fact that he greatly admired Jesus Christ and did not regard it as necessary for his followers to renounce Christianity may have accounted for a large part of his broad appeal to Europeans and Americans.) Two of these disciples were Francis Leggett and his wife, Besse MacLeod Sturges (Betty) Leggett, of Stone Ridge; locals will recognize their name from the road – one of the most scenic in Ulster County – on which they lived on the outskirts of that town.
Whenever Vivekananda went on one of his exhausting lecture tours in the US, the Leggetts would offer their guru the use of their home, Ridgely Manor, as a country refuge for a period of rest and quiet. In the late summer of 1899 – less than three years before his death and already suffering from several chronic illnesses – Vivekananda kicked off his final tour to establish Vedanta Society chapters and an ashram in America with a ten-week retreat at Ridgely.
Accounts of that extended stay in Stone Ridge, “the Great Summer,” collected from letters and diaries of members of the Leggetts’ social circle and other admirers of Vivekananda, were published in a six-volume biography titled Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries by Marie Louise Burke, a/k/a Sister Gargi. You can read fascinating excerpts on the website of what is now called Vivekananda Retreat Ridgely, recounting how the busy swami spent his downtime: writing poetry, playing with small children, learning to draw and to speak French, taking walks on the grounds and carriage rides up to Mohonk, trying his hand at golf and generally captivating all who visited with his wisdom and eloquence. “It was all harmony and joy at Ridgely that summer,” Burke writes.
Among the last generations of the Leggett clan to occupy Ridgely was Betty Leggett’s grandson by her first marriage, Paul Sturges, who was renowned locally as the inventor of an innovative heat exchanger for woodstoves and an early advocate for alternative energy technologies like wind farms. Sturges died in 1984, and in 1997 the estate was sold to the trustees of the Ramakrishna Math in India: the monastery that the young Vivekananda had founded to carry on his guru’s work and the original home of what became known worldwide as the Vedanta Society.
Today Ridgely functions as a retreat center for “spiritual seekers” of all persuasions, though the emphasis is still on the Vedanta school of meditative practice.
Vivekananda Retreat Ridgely is located at 101 Leggett Road, between Route 209 and Lucas Turnpike, just south of the SUNY-Ulster campus. For more information on the history of Ridgely Manor and its most famous guest, visit https://ridgely.org.