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Section 2

Swami Prabhavananda
The Monastery

Swami Prabhavananda

Left to right, Swami Prabhavananda, Aldous Huxley 
& Christopher Isherwood

Copyright Vedanta Society of Southern California
All rights reserved, Collection of
The Vedanta Archives.

In 1939, at Huxley’s but especially Heard’s urging, Isherwood met and then made an appointment with Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood was, however, determined to reveal his homosexuality from the start. If Swami’s reaction was unsatisfactory, there would be no need to ever see him again, but if Chris felt good about the response, he would give it a chance. He writes of that first appointment, “I wasn’t at all discouraged by the Swami’s reply…What reassured me—what convinced me that I could become his pupil—was that he hadn’t shown the least shadow of distaste on hearing me admit to my homosexuality.” He goes on to write that Swami’s position was that it is lust itself of any kind, regardless of the object, that is the spiritual impediment.[1]

In July of 1940, Isherwood’s uncle died, making him the recipient of the ancestral home, Marple Hall[2], and the family fortune. Isherwood renounced the inheritance in favor of his younger brother, Richard. Isherwood was by no means financially set at that time; his fortunes were to vacillate throughout his life.

Isherwood was initiated by Swami Prabhavananda on Holy Mother’s[3] birthday in the winter of 1940. Years later, he would write of the initiation:

I had just entered into a relationship with this little Bengali and his establishment which was far more binding and serious than a marriage–I who always had an instinctive horror of the marriage bond! Would I have involved myself in this way if I had clearly understood what I was doing? Not at that time, I think. I didn’t understand because I didn’t yet believe in the reality of the spiritual involvement.

Prabhavananda must have known very well what he and I were letting ourselves in for. …the tie between the guru and his initiated disciple cannot be broken, either in this world or on any future plane of existence, until the disciple realizes the Atman within himself and is thus set free.

…I had to take it for granted that Prabhavananda had long since faced up to and accepted this tremendous responsibility; it was, after all, his justification for being a Swami.[4]

Heard and Huxley had been initiated before Isherwood and had introduced him to it, but their influence on his spiritual direction was waning. Their approach was eclectic and from the intellect, while Isherwood’s was dedicated and from the heart. While he and Huxley were both working at Warner Brothers Studios Isherwood writes, “That Aldous and I were both officially disciples of Prabhavananda didn’t strengthen the bond between us.[5] …I was beginning to realize that Aldous and Prabhavananda were temperamentally far apart. Prabhavananda was strongly devotional. Aldous was much more akin to his friend Krishnamurti, who… expounded a philosophy of discrimination between the real and the unreal... [Krishnamurti] was repelled by devotional religion and its rituals. [6] He also greatly disapproved of the guru-disciple relationship.”[7]

In John Yale’s compilation, What Vedanta Means to Me, Isherwood wrote: “…I only know that, as far as I am concerned, the guru-disciple relationship is at the center of everything that religion means to me. It is the one reality of which I am never in doubt, the one guarantee that I shall ultimately surmount my own weakness and find knowledge of eternal peace and joy. If, having known this relationship, I could in some terrible way be deprived of it again, then my life would become a nightmare of guilt, boredom and self-disgust.”

Swami Prabhavananda at the Hollywood Temple
Copyright Vedanta Society of Southern California 
All rights reserved, Collection of
The Vedanta Archives

Throughout the chronicle of their long relationship, My Guru and His Disciple, Isherwood frequently writes of the co-existence of the divine power and the human within the being of the guru, speculating on when one appeared over the other and noting that as Swami aged, the balance increasingly tilted toward the divine. However, Isherwood loved both aspects, relishing his guru’s humanity, enjoying the man himself. Conversely, Gerald Heard couldn’t tolerate what he perceived as the human component in Swami Prabhavananda, harshly judging anything that suggested human frailty. Heard was trapped in his own preconceived notion, and apparent prototype for his own character, of the austere, self-mortifying, wizened holy man. That paradigm later proved impracticable for groups when he attempted to form his own spiritual community at Trabuco Canyon.[8]

Heard had played more of the spiritual shepherd to Isherwood than had Huxley. The Heard/Isherwood relationship was closer, more extensive, and more fruitful than My Guru would indicate, almost certainly because Isherwood’s intent was to focus on Swami and himself. However, we will read in the diaries that when Chris was beginning to conceptualize My Guru, he intended for Heard to be more prominent. Heard did play a formative, preparatory role in Chris’ spiritual development as we see in Diaries Volume I. At one point, Isherwood was Heard’s neighbor and was simultaneously frequenting the Society. Of the two environments, Isherwood writes:

The atmosphere of Ivar Avenue [the Temple] and of Gerald’s room … were, in fact, entirely opposed to each other. It was very instructive for me to be able to inhabit both. On the one side, apparent disorder, religious bohemianism, jokes, childish quarrels, dressing up in saris, curry, cigarettes, oriental laissez-faire; on the other, primness, plainness, neatness, austerity, discreet malice, carrots, patched blue jeans, wit and western severity. …Gerald offered me discipline, method, intellectual conviction. But the Swami offered me love.[9]

As Heard mellowed with age, he and Isherwood again became close; but the relationship had changed. When Heard died, Isherwood wrote, “[the world] has lost one of its few great magic mythmakers and revealer of life’s wonder.” 

As the war went on, Isherwood did pacifist service with a Quaker organization in Pennsylvania that housed German-speaking refugees and prepared them for life in America. He lived modestly with a Quaker family, but went to Philadelphia or, more often, New York City for intensive R&R, usually with celebrities. As the draft age was repeatedly raised, Isherwood became eligible for conscription and sought conscientious objector service in a forestry camp. Swami, however, had other plans for him. Isherwood writes:

Meanwhile, the Swami was urging me to apply to the draft board for re-classification as theological student, 4-D…The Swami had a frankly admitted motive for keeping me out of the forestry camp. He wanted me to come and live as a monk at the Vedanta Center, as soon as he could make arrangements to accommodate men there. This might take several months. But he also had an occupation for me which I could begin work on immediately. He had just finished a rough translation of the Bhagavad-Gita and needed me to help him polish it.

I told him I doubted very much that the [draft] board would agree to reclassify me when I was already good as drafted. Why should they take the trouble to do the extra paperwork? The Swami giggled and said, “Try.” To my ears, there was a slightly uncanny quality in this giggle; it sounded as if he knew something about the situation which I didn’t.

The Monastery  

The Community, many are monastic women and men, whom Isherwood referred to as “The Family” in front of the Hollywood Temple, c. 1952-53. Left to right, Top:  Richard Liebow, Lee Bailey, Dell Grover, Christopher Isherwood, Henry Dennison, John Yale (Prema, Sw. Vidyatmananda), John Schenkel, Swami Yogeshananda, Ramdas, Michael Barrie. Middle Row, seated: Ujjvala (Ida Ansell), Swami Aseshananda, Swami Prabhavananda, and Gerald Heard. Steps (upper row): Baradaprana, possibly Jnanada or possibly Maria, Prabhaprana, Amiya (Countess of Sandwich), Sarada, Anandaprana, Khunki. Bottom Step: Yogini (Yogaprana), Pagli. Copyright Vedanta Society of Southern California All rights reserved, Collection of The Vedanta Archives

Isherwood moved into the monastery in 1943; this was the first batch of monks. Although one gets the impression from My Guru that this was entirely Swami’s idea and doing, Isherwood had mentioned monastic aspirations in his diaries preceding Prabhavananda’s push. Isherwood went to work on his task, assisting with the translation of the Bhagavad Gita.

Here are Swami Prabhavananda's comments about how the translation came about:

Once I was away for a rest in Palm Springs. I had a Gita translation with me. When I read the twelfth chapter, I felt that the meaning had not been brought out; I saw deeper meaning in it. So I started to translate, and then Chris helped me.

I translated and Chris edited. When Peggy Kiskadden came, she read what we had done and could not understand it. Then we went to Aldous [Huxley]. Chris read aloud, and Aldous listened. Aldous said, “No, that is not right yet. Forget that Krishna is speaking to the Hindus in Sanskrit. Forget that this is a translation. Think that Krishna is speaking to an American audience in English.”

…Chris rewrote the whole eleventh chapter of the Gita following Tennyson, I think. He produced the book in a week. He was inspired."

It must be mentioned that Isherwood was not a Sanskrit scholar. Here is how he describes the division of functions:

Our work on the Gita was, for me, not only a literary problem but an education in Vedanta philosophy. Even if the result had not been intended for publication, I should have felt that every moment of it was worthwhile. For the slow, thorough-going process of translating a text—considering all the significance of each word and often spending a day on three or four verses—is the ideal way to study, if you have a teacher like Prabhavananda.

The swami’s English was fluent and his knowledge of Sanskrit equally good… At that time, I knew no Sanskrit whatsoever; even today I … could easily write down my little vocabulary on one side of a postcard. My share of the collaboration was therefore secondary. Prabhavananda told me the meaning of a phrase; we then considered how its meaning could best be conveyed in English.[10] 

This was the first Prabhavananda/Isherwood collaboration.[11] As indicated in Swami’s account, the translation had not been going well. Isherwood’s take on the “miraculously fast” Plan B approach and execution was that part of the artistic process takes place subconsciously. If the artist knows that something isn’t working, the mind goes to work to reconstruct it. When the artist is ready to admit the failure consciously, the mind is ready to present the new edifice.

The Prabhavananda Gita introduced many Sanskrit terms into the American vocabulary. Isherwood explains at length that certain Sanskrit words must remain in their original as there are no concise English language equivalents. This new vocabulary was also personally important to him. He writes “My prejudices [against religion] were largely semantic. I could only approach the subject of mystical religion with the aid of a brand new vocabulary. Sanskrit supplied it. Here were a lot of new words, exact, antiseptic, uncontaminated…Every idea could be made over.”[12]

From the Translator’s Preface of the Gita we read:

Extremely literal translations of the Gita already exist. We have aimed, rather at an interpretation. Here is one of the greatest religious documents of the world: let us not approach it too pedantically as an archaic text which must be jealously guarded by university professors. It has something to say, urgently, to every one of us. We have to extract that message from the terseness of the original Sanskrit.

[1] My Guru, pp 25-26.

[2] To quote the Marple website: “On a visit to the site of the Hall [which had gone to ruin] in the sixties Christopher Isherwood is reported to have ‘felt no grimness or sadness’ [emphasis theirs] at seeing only grass where the house had stood ‘only wonderfully joyful’. It is unlikely that anyone with the least sense of history will be able to share, or understand these sentiments.”

[3] Toward the end of My Guru, (pp 335-336) Isherwood writes: “I meditate before a print of that same photograph [of Holy Mother that Swami Prabhavananda hung in his room]—partly because I associate it particularly with Swami; partly because I need a mother figure through whom I can feel a more loving acceptance of my own mother…”

[4] Isherwood, My Guru, 63-67.

[5] It should be noted that Chris saw a great deal of Aldous and Maria Huxley socially and even went on at least one road trip with them. Their relationship changed over time. At this point, Isherwood seems to be declaring his independence from the older Huxley as any kind of spiritual pathfinder.

[6] There is a revealing video interview of Krishnamurti by Huston Smith from 1968. It runs about 1 hour (and may be slow to download):
Krishnamurti’s organization had produced the interview.

And here’s Smith’s take on the interview: A film by Mel Van Dusen.


[7] Isherwood, My Guru, 50.

[8] Gerald Heard founded Trabuco College in Trabuco Canyon, CA in 1942. It was part college, part ashram, and very austere. However, Heard was not able to sustain it and in 1949 donated it to the Vedanta Society. John Yale writes of the ceremony in The Making of a Devotee: “Gerald found he was visited with some of the same problems he had criticized Prabhavananda for having handled inadequately. Faithful Chris was present at the dedication. He spoke, as did Gerald and Prabhavananda…the occasion reeked of irony…There was after that a period of rapprochement”

[9] Christopher Isherwood, Diaries, Volume One, ed. Katherine Bucknell, (Harper Flamingo), 1997, 151.

[10]Christopher Isherwood, The Wishing Tree, ed. Robert Adjemian, (Harper & Row) 1986, 182-183.

[11] Although obviously a completely capable solo writer, Isherwood enjoyed frequent writing collaborations, sacred, secular, and just plain fun, throughout his life. He also had forced collaborations on scripts when working at the movie studios.

[12] Isherwood, Diaries, Volume One, ed. Katherine Bucknell, 29.

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