Images by Bryce Johnson
In 1969, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami set foot on the Garden Isle of Kaua‘i. Widely respected in the Hindu world, Subramuniyaswami trained in Sri Lanka under Jnanaguru Yogaswami, a famed mystic. But it was the lush forests of Kaua‘i that so captivated Subramuniyaswami, who would, one year later, found Kauai Aadheenam, a 382-acre Hindu monastery on the banks of the Wailuā River.
This monastery, which began as a cloistered retreat, has become well-known internationally over the last 15 years. (Despite its remote location, the monks maintain a popular quarterly print magazine, Hinduism Today, which was founded in 1979 by Subramuniyaswami and reaches Hindus around the globe with its online version.) Here, beneath the shadow of Mount Wai‘ale‘ale, 21 monks from six nations—India, Malaysia, Canada, Singapore, France, and the United States—lead a spartan but fulfilled life, adhering closely to the Tamil culture, traditions, and theology of South India and Sri Lanka, and remaining true to the ideals of simplicity, austerity, and goodness, as defined by Subramuniyaswami.
“Perfection isn’t measured by intellect or emotion,” says Paramacharya Sadasivanatha Palaniswami, a monk with a long gray beard, whose saffron-colored robes indicate his elder rank. “The perfection is our soul.” A monk’s purpose, Palaniswami says, is to find perfection and to learn to abide there constantly. “Only then can you really share that with others,” he says.
Strict disciplines help the monks achieve what Palaniswami calls “divine consciousness,” a state of being where one is keenly aware of the presence of a higher power. Monks awake before sunrise, emerging from modest 10-by-10-foot concrete block structures called guha (cave in Sanskrit) in order to be present for prayers at 5:30 a.m., during which they meditate and recite japa, or mantras, with prayer beads (penance for being tardy to prayer includes having to do another monk’s chores for the day). Afterward, monks join their kulam, or work family, to fulfill daily duties that may include groundskeeping, tending to dairy cows, managing finances, or, in Palaniswami’s case, editing and publishing Hinduism Today. A vegetarian lunch is prepared exactly at 1:08 p.m.—a sacred number in Hinduism—using crops harvested from the property farm.
Kaua‘i’s Hindu monks don’t talk about their pasts. They don’t go to birthday parties or revel in Super Bowl Sundays. They don’t marry. But they do aspire to live with compassion, understanding, and love, and to transform the world with goodness. For Palaniswami, the monastery is a counterbalance to the tumult of the secular world; it’s a place where love, tolerance, temperance, and asceticism reign.
“Once you’ve … embraced, with both arms, the life we have on this island, and the life we have in serving our faith and exploring the depths of our own humanity and our own consciousness, [you realize] it’s a pretty good trade-off,” Palaniswami says. “You couldn’t invent a life that is more perfect.”
The Kaua‘i Hindu Monastery is open 9 a.m. to noon daily. For more information, visit himalayanacademy.com.
This story is part of our The Good Life Issue.