by Swami Yogatmananda

“Hmmm … . Interesting!”

He expressed, by the tone and by facial gesture, his disapproval and disagreement of my opinion about rebirth, after asking me some pointed questions. I knew, my answers were far from convincing for a learned Professor of Philosophy at Providence College, imbued with Western ideas about life, body, soul etc.

He was Prof. Mathew Pugh. It was sometimes towards the end 2001. I had come to the US from India just about 5-6 months ago; Prof Mathew too had come to teach Philosophy at Providence College around the same time. He showed a good knowledge of and interest in Vedanta, life and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, Mysticism, meditational practices etc and attended the classes and lectures regularly. The use of ‘interesting’ to convey disagreement, without being disagreeable, was the first of the many, many important and very useful things that Prof. Mathew taught me.

We started having many interesting (not in the above-mentioned sense) conversations about Sri Ramakrishna’s Samadhi-experiences, about fine points in Vedanta and Buddhist philosophy, Karma and reincarnation, the ideas of body-mind-soul in Vedanta and many other related issues. He liked to sit long hours in meditation and also attend the Indian classical music concerts. One day, I expressed my desire to get some courses in Western philosophy from him. After coming to the USA, I felt the need to have a better understanding of the various important strands in ancient and modern Western philosophy. When I requested Prof Mathew, he agreed to tutor me and thought of a plan to give me some broad but brief outline of Western philosophy. What a memorable time I had, learning the ideas of Parmenides, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. He also gave a few classes on Thomas Aquinas, and then on Kant. I saw a new, immensely varied world opening before me. There was of course a good exchange of ideas between Indian and Western philosophical tenets. ‘So, Swami, what is the take of Vedanta on this?’ – He would ask after explaining some of the doctrines of a great philosopher and that would lead to a crisp discussion.

But the real gems he gave were from the study of Plotinus. I am greatly indebted to him for introducing and expertly guiding me into the Enneads of Plotinus. The sublime spiritual insights which came up as the churning of Enneads progressed were very special. He also suggested that I should study St John of Cross. It opened up another spiritually charged study.

We shared another common interest: Indian classical music. His knowledge and profound feel for music was rare. He was a connoisseur of Western music too. When I decided to give a Sun talk on ‘Appreciating Music’, he loaned me a dozen superb books with very useful suggestions. Two of the books helped me much even beyond this talk, one was by the famous  composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and another by Hazarat Inayat Khan.

He had multiple health problems. Severe diabetes, tendency to form blood clots, and sleep apnea were the more prominent ones and he had to be hospitalized a few times. He did survive some serious, life-threatening bouts of illness. 

In 2011-12, he also went to India to speak at the International Seminar on Vedanta during Swami Vivekananda’s 150th Birth Anniversary Celebration at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture.  During this trip, he extensively toured many different historic and holy places too. 

He passed away on Oct 9, 2015, after a series of illnesses for over six months. In spite of the crippling sickness, he was mentally alert and smiling.

I feel his astral presence at hand when reading Plotinus or St. John of Cross and when a wonderful music concert is going on at Vedanta.