It is a symbol of devotion and austerity within the Hindu tradition for monks and swamis to don the saffron robe. Some say the color was important in classical times to protect the meditating yogis from snakes and wild animals around their jungle ashrams. When I meet Swami Bruce Hilliger outside his Interfaith Peace Temple in Greenville, he wears a hunter-orange fleece vest, and spreads sand on an icy sidewalk while his two dogs, Akasha and Prana, dash around a flock of chickens, llamas and guinea hens. Guitarist, school bus driver and sannyasin (swami renunciant), who took vows with the Ramakrishna order, Hilliger is not your stereotypical image of a Hindu holy man, and his temple, a converted barn situated on a 100-acre Catskill farm, is hardly the opulent Himalayan ashram.
“In lots of ways, the Dude is kind of my doppelganger,” Hilliger says, referring to Jeff Bridges’ character in The Big Lebowski, and he does seem a sort of composite of Bridges and Jerry Garcia. But if the Dude was a prophet for the simple, Credence-loving everyman, Hilliger’s gospel draws its appeal from Vendanta Yoga, an ancient nondual Indian philosophy expounded by the 19th-century sage Ramakrishna, in whose lineage Hilliger trained as a young swami and to which he’s put his own unorthodox twist in Greenville.
After finishing college outside Chicago in the early ’70s, Hilliger, like so many of his generation, had begun dabbling in eastern philosophical systems when a friend suggested he attend a lecture by a Ramakrishna swami. “I heard him lecture for 10 minutes on the Mandukya Upanishad [a text that describes reality as an emanation of the universal vibration ‘om’] and realized I’d been waiting for this my whole life,” he says. “It struck me so deep and hard. I went up to him afterward and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I see you’re finally here. Where have you been?’”
So Hilliger began a course of study at the Chicago Vivekananda Vedanta Society and the Vivekananda Monastery and Retreat in Ganges, Mich. (Vivekananda was Ramakrishna’s star disciple and is credited for translating complicated, esoteric subjects for the average practitioner.) A decade after that first lecture, Hilliger took his sannyasi vows (which involve performing one’s own funeral rites) to become ordained as Swami Atmavtratananda.
Under his guru’s instruction, Hilliger then left for Atlanta, where he was in charge of the small Vedanta Society there. “After two years, I realized I was more proud of the work I did there with my friends because with devotees you’re often just preaching to the choir,” he said. For many within the lineage, Hilliger says, it’s the mark of a good teacher to recite doctrine by rote, but he favored a more independent, creative approach. “I thought I should be able to talk about this stuff on my feet,” he says. “Vivekananda had a vision for an [ashram] in the Himalayas where there are no dieties. It’s just a place to see god in all things. When I came here, I said that’s what I want to do.”
The Greenville temple was started in 1978 by an Indian swami of the Ramakrishna order who had the rare blessing to start his own place. Ten or 15 people lived in the small boarding house and performed daily meditations and puja ceremonies. As was the case with so many religious communities of that era, sexual indiscretion on the part of the guru caused the community to collapse, and Lex Hixon, a spiritually inclined philanthropist from New Jersey, along with one of three remaining residents, bought the place.
Hixon had started a group called Sarada Ramakrishna Vivekananda (SRV) that was not officially associated with the order but followed the same teachings. Due to Hilliger’s own growing differences with the Ramakrishna orthodoxy, he welcomed the opportunity to run the revamped temple when Hixon offered, and Hilliger received his own guru’s blessing to do so. A dream in which Ramakrishna and Vivekananda appeared to him within the Greenville temple sealed the deal. When, seven years later, the Ramakrishna headquarters learned of Hilliger’s departure from Chicago (along with a number of other wayward swamis), they demanded he come back within two weeks or elect to join any other sanctioned international ashram. He refused and was thereby kicked out of the official order. As of July 4, Hilliger will have been in Greenville for 25 years.
There are five symbols on the front of the Greenville temple, symbolizing Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In his life, Ramakrishna had mystical visions within all of these traditions, deducing that they all led to the same underlying truth. “I belong to the blank spot behind all that,” says Hilliger. “I’ve always been more attracted to a nameless, formless god than this or that diety. I wanted this place to be a Western place where anyone could walk through the door and get some benefit.” Unfortunately, the first few years were marred by disagreements with the temple’s board of directors, who preferred a more traditional approach to programming. Eventually, though, Hilliger gained sovereignty and, after 10 years, “great things started happening.”
The trade-off was that Hilliger had to find new financial avenues for the temple and himself, as he transitioned away from a live-in ashram-style center. Swamis usually draw no income and are supported by the donations of devotees, but to make it all work, Hilliger started driving a school bus and substitute teaching in the public school system for supplemental income. “Before I joined the monestary, I was driving a school bus and playing in rock & roll bands,” he jokes. “And within three months of leaving the monestary, I was driving a school bus and playing in rock & roll bands.” Local music fans may remember the now-defunct Swami and the Hurricanes.
In a way, Hilliger’s work in the school district has been an extension of his training and work within Vedanta, indeed an extension of the temple’s humanitarian mission. “Ramakrishna said, ‘Every way is a way,’” says Hilliger. “Every human life is a spiritual journey.” If the teachings can’t be customized for and applied to any individual in any community, then their truth might be limited. In addition to meditation classes and workshops, the Greenville temple opens its doors to dance and acting classes, karate, alcoholics anonymous groups and weddings—pretty much whatever the local community needs space for and whatever falls under the center’s mission to share spiritual practices of all types, spread the teachings of Ramakrishna/Vivekananda and provide humanitarian service.
“Vivekananda used to say that some boys in India would get more benefit from playing football than reading the Bhagavad Gita,” says Hilliger, endorsing any “disciplinary art” as a path toward yoga. “There’s a way for you to grow, and if I’m insightful enough in any way to help you do that, then I feel I’ve served my duty. My job is to massage this calm, peaceful place, so that when people come, they feel that.”
At 60, Hilliger has begun envisioning a day when he can leave the school district and focus his time and energy entirely on the temple, possibly reintroducing traditional Ramakrishna services and classes. “My teacher said, ‘Find an ashram. Do your sadhana [spiritual practice] for 20 years, then open your doors.’ Which is kind of what it’s been for me.”