Swami Vivekananda, the yoga missionary

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Media caption,

The BBC's Emily Buchanan looks back at the life of Swami Vivekananda

Few in the west have heard of Swami Vivekananda, who was born 150 years ago this week. Yet this Bengali intellectual, still revered in India, introduced many people to yoga and meditation.

The crunch of car tyres on gravel, the heavy smell of an imminent thunderstorm, swaying elm trees - random childhood memories of my grandmother's house, Ridgely, in upstate New York.

I also dimly remember casual references to a Swami. "That was Swami's sofa." "The end room - that is where the Swami used to sleep."

I would collect fallen branches from a huge fir tree for the Alsatian dog to chew - it was known as "prophet Swami's pine".

Then there were those fading sepia photographs of Victorian ladies in hats and long dresses standing next to a striking young Indian with a turban and large expressive eyes.

None of it meant much to me back then in the 1970s. It is only recently I have realized that this Swami was in fact one of India's most influential spiritual teachers - the first to package eastern philosophy for the West.

My family had invited him to stay in this house and helped him publicise his work.

Swami Vivekananda was a Bengali intellectual and chief disciple of the Hindu mystic Ramakrishna. His talent was in distilling complex ancient texts down to a simple message - that all religions are equal and God is inside everyone.

He first shot to stardom at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He called for tolerance and the end of religious fanaticism - by a strange coincidence the date was 11 September (or 9/11), 1893.

After his first words, "Sisters and brothers of America", there was a standing ovation - women fell over each other to get a closer look at this handsome Hindu monk with ochre robes and turban who spoke flawless English in a deep authoritative voice.

He became hugely in demand and people flocked to his lectures.

To those used to the Judeo-Christian view of an external God, his ideas on yoga and meditation were exciting and new.

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The Ridgely house today and the tree under which Vivekananda held talks

In between long lecture tours round America, Vivekananda used to rest at Ridgely - then owned by my great-grandparents.

A hundred years later, the house has passed to the followers of his Vedanta teaching.

When I went back there, I was surprised to find it had changed remarkably little, except the home in which I used to romp around and throw beanbags is now treated as a holy place of pilgrimage, where devotees tiptoe in respect.

Volunteers dig the vegetable patch and mend the crumbling pipes, working to preserve the beautiful old clapboard house. To them it is not just a property but a shrine to a holy man.

A steady stream of quiet, thoughtful people arrive for lectures on the ancient Hindu texts, the Vedas, and chanting sessions. It is all very understated and peaceful - a slice of India being nurtured in the heart of New England.

One Indian couple from New Jersey said they came to feel Vivekananda's presence, perhaps hoping a residue of the great man's holiness would rub off. They even touched me on the arm, as if being a descendant of the family who helped him somehow made me special too.

Image caption,
The Dalai Lama attended Vivekananda's 150th anniversary celebrations

In charge of the Retreat Centre is a dynamic Californian nun from the Ramakrishna order called Pravrajika Gitaprana. She showed me around.

"His bed has been shipped to India, but this room is where he slept, this dining room is where he ate," she told me, as we wandered through the house.

"It was a place he could just be himself. He used to roller-skate down the corridor, and he loved ice cream."

She pointed at the "Prophet's Pine" and explained: "That grew from a seedling taken from a tree in Maine. Swami Vivekananda used to hold his talks under it. The tiny sapling was planted by your great-great-aunt, Josephine Macleod."

"Joe Joe" as Vivekananda called her, had become one of his lifelong friends and supporters.

Image caption,
Josephine Macleod (far left) travelled to Kashmir with Vivekananda

She went as far as embarking on her own 19th Century hippy trail, travelling with him and other disciples to India. I noticed a photograph of her with the Swami in a remote part of Kashmir.

It was almost unheard of in those days for white ladies and Indians to travel together.

Many thousands have since followed her to seek spiritual enlightenment in India.

Hundreds of gurus and swamis, some holier than others, have lured them there. But to Josephine, her penniless wandering monk was incorruptible - a true mystic.

In India today, Vivekananda is revered as a saint. In the west he is virtually unknown.

But then, Gitaprana told me, "he would not have minded, he did not want to be worshipped slavishly or remembered for all eternity. He just wanted people to discover the prophet, Buddha or Christ inside themselves".

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