GANGES -- Janet Poole was raised as a Protestant and
considers herself a Christian. Recently, however, the 35-year-old has found herself heading East on her spiritual journey.
A few months ago, Poole, an administrative assistant from Naples, Fla., started exploring Hinduism, the world's third-largest religion behind Christianity and Islam and the dominant faith in India and Nepal.
"I'm just discovering all about it, and it's fascinating what I'm
learning," she says.
Poole hopes to find out even more about Hinduism, which its followers consider to be less a religion and more a way of life, during a three-day conference that begins Friday June 22-24 at the Vivekananda Monastery and Retreat.
The event, "Vedanta in the Third Millennium," is expected to attract about 500 people to Ganges, a village in southwestern Michigan about 90 miles from Chicago. Ganges was chosen as the monastery's site in the late 1960s because it shares its name with India's holy river.
"The idea of doing this conference is to make the people aware of their spiritual identity," says Swami Chidananda, leader of the
Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago, which operates the monastery and is organizing the conference. "Once they become aware of their spiritual identity, they'll be really happy and peaceful in this life because people are always facing so many challenges."
He says the event will focus on personal spiritual instruction and Vedanta, the philosophical foundation of Hinduism that essentially says all religions are one, all humans are potentially divine, and the aim of life is to realize that divinity through selfless work and devotion to God.
There are an estimated 813 million Hindus worldwide, including about 1 million in the United States, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia.
Many Hindus living in the United States are interested in what will happen at the Ganges event, says Lakshmana Rao, managing editor of the India Tribune. The English-language newspaper is published weekly in Chicago, New York and Atlanta.
"Indians here look at this conference as an important event because it sets the mood (for Hinduism) for the next millennium," Rao says.
The program will feature discussions, devotional music, cultural
events, a youth essay and periods of worship and meditation.
It should be one of the largest gatherings of swamis in U.S. history, says Frank Parlato, a Vedanta scholar and journalist who lives near Buffalo, N.Y.
Chidananda is one of 14 North American swamis -- Hindu monks and spiritual teachers of the highest standing -- scheduled to take part at the Ganges conference. Thirteen swamis from around the world attended a 1987 conference at the monastery.
"The Hindus feel ... that the presence of these people is enough to transform them," Parlato says.
Poole, who met Chidananda when she visited his Chicago ashram, or spiritual center, a few weeks ago, said "just being in his presence is uplifting."
"Everything that he spoke just rang true. There was nothing that I had any real difficulty believing or getting behind."
Parlato says many people find Hinduism appealing because it is "not a proselytizing religion. It is probably the only religion that has said it is never going outside its boundaries to convert. There is no
belief in its superiority. The Hindu always accept other religions as true."