The Vedanta Center of St. Petersburg, for the eighth year in a row, held its’ annual summer retreat during the week of July 10-16, 2017. As in years past it was held at Roan Mountain State Park in Tennessee. The park is located at the base of the majestic 6,285 foot Roan Mountain and encompasses over 2,000 acres of mostly hardwood forest. Through the center of the park flows the cool, clear Doe River.
Devotees in attendance this year were 20, primarily from Florida and California. Also included were three Swamis; Swami Ishtananda, the organizer of the retreat, from St. Petersburg Vedanta Center, Swami Mahayogananda, from the Vedanta Society of Southern California, and Swami Nishpapananda, from the Vedanta Society of St. Louis. Accommodations for the devotees are completely furnished log cabins situated along paths in the forest. One of the cabins was set up with a shrine and another one was set up as a dining area, in which everyone takes all meals together.
Each day participants attended at 6:00 am, morning meditation, followed by chanting of Vedic prayers and reading from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Everyone then gathered for breakfast, followed by a short reading and discussion. The book selected was “Srimad Bhagavatam” . Evening Arati was held each afternoon at 5:00 pm, with chanting, meditation and a short discourse by one of the Swamis.
Swami Nishpapananda’s topic was “Glimpses of Swami Brahmananda”. This included readings from reminiscences of Swami Brahmananda by Swami Vijnanananda, and by the son of Navagopal Ghosh about his father’s relationship with Maharaj.
Swami Mahayogananda spoke on “The Holy Name”. He stated that just the holy name can take us to the goal. As we chant the holy name we begin to acquire love for God. He focused the talk on the first verse of Sri Chaitanya’s eight verse prayer.
On Thursday, July 13 a half day retreat on the topic “Incarnation of God” was conducted by Swami Ishtananda, Swami Mahayogananda and Swami Nishpapananda. Swami Mahayogananda began the retreat by focusing on Swami Vivekananda’s thoughts on Sri Ramakrishna as an avatar. Swamiji was reluctant to speak about Ramakrishna in the beginning yet he wrote three hymns to him, all in 1898. The “Khandana” is a hymn of devotion to an avatar, but does not mention Sri Ramakrishna. Second is “Om Ring Ritam”, a hymn of utter surrender and taking refuge in Ramakrishna and third is “Avatara Varishtaya” which tells of complete self surrender and self effort. Sri Ramakrishna is a great weapon to fight off doubt.
Swami Nishpapananda then spoke on avataras as prophets and messengers of God. Avatars give us a message in purity and devotion to God. Avatars, due to their attraction to people, come to inspire us with their message. It is hard to realize this because of human existence. It is necessary to have a personal aspect of God for our psychological well being.
After a short break several devotees spoke on their views of an avatar. Swami Ishtananda concluded the retreat by speaking on “Avatara – Friend, Philosopher, and the Guide”. Swami said that the idea of an avatar has something to do with life; a purpose in life; a goal to achieve – to go near God. If life is to be moving forward then a teacher is needed so life becomes meaningful and progress happens. An avatara is like a lamp sitting on a doorsill – they see both the inside and the outside. Three purposes of an avatar are 1. They come at the last stretch of life to define God as the purpose of life, 2. To show the value of the dignity of life, and 3. Saving human society from the verge of self destruction due to conflict of ideologies.
On Friday, the final afternoon lecture by Swami Ishtananda was titled “Finding Harmony in Spiritual Life”. Joy and happiness is the reason for striving for a religious life; a release from the cycle of birth and death. There are three things to consider; 1. When opportunities come for spiritual life grab on to it and consider it the grace of God, 2. Try to increase the appetite in spiritual life – do not stagnate, and 3. Check your own good/bad tendencies from time to time – a spiritual check up. Be enthusiastic, be optimistic and keep moving.
During the day retreat attendees had time to explore the nature. There were two group hikes organized. One on the Appalachian Trail starting from Carver’s Gap, at the Tennessee/North Carolina border. The second was at the Rhododendron Gardens at the heights of the Roan. The hike started with a heavy morning mist common to high altitude mountains. There were also short hikes and a visit to the Miller Farmstead located within the park.
On Wednesday morning all attendees went for a picnic breakfast at Wautauga Lake. The picnic grounds were on the banks of the lake. Everyone was treated to a luxurious dinner Thursday evening at the Wellington Restaurant in Johnson City, Tennessee. All participants gathered Saturday afternoon for a late lunch at Smokey Mountain Bakers in the town of Roan Mountain,
Each evening after dinner all the participants gathered on the porch of the Swamis’ cabin for a reading by Swami Nishpapananda from “In the Company of the Holy Mother”. These evening readings and being in the group of devotees was also a happy and peaceful experience and a culmination to a wonderful day in the peace and tranquility of the surroundings. Everyone felt blessed and spiritually uplifted to be a part of this retreat and are already planning on next year.
As one of the participants said; “We share all our meals together full of joy and laughter. The grand communion of spiritual company and the enlightening talks from the monks, who have given us their valuable time to help us along our spiritual paths, infuses me with thoughts to contemplate in this silence. So much to be grateful for. I can't help but think that this place will be permeated with this spirit and it will grow and be shared by many more to come.”
216 19th Avenue South East St. Petersburg, Fl 33705
For a video of the Retreat please go to the Video Lectures page.