The very name of Swami Vivekananda sends through us a stirring current of strength. “I am one of the proudest men ever born” he proclaimed while speaking about his Hindu roots, “but let me tell you frankly, it is not for myself, but on account of my ancestry.”
Only the sinners live long, goes an adage. It shouldn’t be taken to mean that all those who live long are sinners. But the reverse of it is also equally true. Lives of many great men are shorter. Adi Shankara, for instance, lived for only three decades. Shivaji died at the age of 51. Similarly, Vivekananda’s life was short. Born in 1863, he died at a very young age of 39, in 1902. But the amount of good work that he did in such a short period can be gauged from the fact that even after over a century since his demise, he is still considered as the most powerful youth icon and an inspiration to the country.
Among his contemporaries was Mahatma Gandhi, though they never met. On a visit to the Ramakrishna Mutt at Belur, which was founded by Vivekananda, Gandhi claimed that his patriotism grew a thousand-fold after reading Vivekananda.
I have gone through his works very thoroughly, and after having gone through them, the love that I had for my country became a thousand-fold.
Romain Rolland, renowned French philosopher and Nobel prize winner, had authored a biography of Vivekananda. He had boundless admiration for Swamiji.
I cannot touch these sayings of his…without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock…what transports must have been produced when in burning words they issued from the lips of the hero.
Rolland also once said that his greatest regret in life was not to have met Vivekananda and learnt at his feet.
Vivekananda was a revolutionary monk, revolutionary in the sense that he possessed great courage and conviction to defend Hinduism abroad on the one hand, and severely jolt Hindus out of their slumber through his harsh admonition, on the other. He was relentless in his efforts to carry the message of Vedanta to every nook and corner of the world, but he was also ruthless in exposing the fallacies and superstitions that were eating into the vitals of Hinduism domestically.
His visit to the United States to take part in the World’s Parliament of Religions (WPR) at Chicago in August 1893 was a turning point in the history of Hinduism. That was not an easy time. India was under British rule, as a slave country. Hinduism was a much-denounced religion in the West, thanks to the overzealous missionaries who wanted to make some extra money by portraying India in a negative light. Moreover, this young man of just 30 was a completely unknown entity both in India as well as abroad.
But once Vivekananda set foot on American soil, he was unstoppable. He faced great difficulty, especially with the lack of money and lack of acquaintances in a faraway foreign land. But fearlessness was his character, and knowledge and oratory his weapons. He displayed exceptional knowledge and oozed self-confidence. That is why when he wanted an introduction from Professor John Henry Right of Boston University for participation in the WPR, the learned professor responded by saying, “To ask you, Swami, for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine.”
We must also recall that Vivekananda was the first Indian to be invited to chair the Department of Oriental Philosophy at Harvard University, though he politely declined.
The WPR was a first-of-its-kind interfaith event in those times. The host committee was chaired by a clergyman, John Barrows. Around 190 papers were presented at the event, majority of them by Christian scholars. Vivekananda spoke thrice in that 10-day conference. It is well-known that he became the centre of attraction because of his unique thoughts and unparalleled oratory. His very first words, “Dear Brothers and Sisters of America”, attracted a thunderous applause for a good couple of minutes. He left an indelible impression on the audience through his authentic portrayal of Hinduism and Vedanta.
It is important to consider the background of the Chicago event. Promoted by a predominantly Christian group, the event received both curiosity and condemnation before it actually kicked off. The Archbishop of Canterbury had sent a letter of disapproval from London saying, “the Christian religion is the one religion. I do not understand how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other intended members and the parity of their position and claims.”
Vivekananda propagated the idea of a ‘universal religion’ and equated it with Vedanta. The organisers, including Barrows, were undoubtedly impressed by his vision and oration, but at the same time they saw in his philosophy a threat to Christianity. His inclusivism was acceptable to them to the extent that it didn’t challenge the primacy of Christianity. Barrows’ report said,
The Parliament has shown that Christianity is still the great quickener of humanity, that it is now educating those who do not accept its doctrines, that there is no teacher to be compared with Christ, and no Saviour excepting Christ … The non-Christian world may give us valuable criticism and confirm scriptural truths and make excellent suggestion as to Christian improvement, but it has nothing to add to the Christian creed.
In his “Review and Summary” of the Parliament, Barrows seemed to attack Vivekananda directly by saying:
The idea of evolving a cosmic or universal faith out of the Parliament was not present in the minds of its chief promoters. They believe that the elements of such a religion are already contained in the Christian ideal and the Christian Scripture. They had no thought of attempting to formulate a universal creed.
However, the WPR had provided an excellent opportunity for a new star to rise on the spiritual horizon of the world. Many prominent papers of the time had carried articles eulogising the ideas and ideals presented by Vivekananda in the form of Vedanta or universal religion. “We are carrying coal to Newcastle”, wrote a paper suggesting that it was an insult to send Christian missionaries to a land from where Vivekananda came.
During his four-year sojourn in the West, Vivekananda had propagated the glorious Indian idea of universality of spiritual thought. He believed that like all other things, spirituality and religion too had to pass the test of scientific exploration. Mere belief, according to him, was not enough. Religions had to stand the test of scrutiny and investigation of science. “If a religion is destroyed by such investigations, it was then all the time useless, unworthy superstition; and the sooner it goes, the better”. When someone asked him about Vedanta, he responded in the affirmative about the scientific basis of his religion.
In the ninth chapter of Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that he was imparting him ‘Jnanam Vignana Sahitam’, meaning spiritual knowledge that is in consonance with scientific knowledge.
Universal religion or Vedanta is not a negation of the existence of multiple religions. It is based on the statement by Gitacharya in the fourth chapter of the Gita, ye yatha mam prapadyante, tams tathaiva bhajamy aham, meaning whoever worships me in whatever form, I am That. Vivekananda used to quote this verse from the Gita to state that Vedanta is not an exclusivist or superior religion but one that every human being should attain in the evolutionary process of spiritual thought.
Through Vedanta, Vivekananda tried to dispel the notion in the West about Hinduism being a religion of many gods. Since the Semitic world believed in the monotheistic conception of God, Hinduism to them was polytheism. Vivekananda would contest this understanding to explain that the Vedantic philosophy in Hinduism proposed omnipresence of God and, hence, if one were to explain Hinduism in those terms, it ought to be categorised as omnitheism, not polytheism.
Despite his eager support and propagation of Vedanta and universal religion in the West, Vivekananda had some harsh words for his countrymen. A modernist at the core, he was aghast at the depravity, poverty and superstition at the time in his motherland. He had openly revolted against these aspects and condemned the practitioners of those false faiths in the harshest of terms.
On his way to America, Vivekananda had the opportunity to visit Japan. He spent considerable time visiting several cities like Tokyo and Osaka. His letters to his fellow countrymen from Japan are instructive of his modernist outlook on the one hand, and his abhorrence for backward-looking ideas of the Hindu religion on the other.
“Come, see these people, and then go and hide your faces in shame”, wrote Vivekananda in a letter to India on 10 July 1893, from Japan.
A race of dotards, you lose your caste if you come out! Sitting down these hundreds of years with an ever-increasing load of crystallized superstition on your heads, for hundreds of years spending all your energy upon discussing the touchableness or untouchableness of this food or that, with all humanity crushed out of you by the continuous social tyranny of ages – what are you? And what are you doing now? … promenading the sea-shores with books in your hands – repeating undigested stray bits of European brainwork, and the whole soul bent upon getting thirty-rupee clerkship, or at best becoming a lawyer – the height of young India’s ambition – and every student with a whole brood of hungry children cackling at his heels and asking for bread! Is there not water enough in the sea to drown your books, gowns, university diplomas and all?
These words might sound harsh, but behind them laid a naked truth – of a great nation with universal hoary ideas being reduced to a despondent mass of hungry, uneducated and superstitious people.
In Rolland’s words, Vivekananda, through his life and teachings, had wanted to awaken this mass of people, who were the inheritors of the world’s greatest philosophical truths and wisdom. His obituary for Vivekananda read:
He was less than forty years of age when the athlete lay stretched upon the pyre. But the flame of that pyre is still alight today. From his ashes, like those of the Phoenix of old, has sprung anew the conscience of India. Oh Mother! Awake.
In Rabindranath Tagore’s words, “If you want to know India, study Vivekananda. In him everything is positive and nothing negative”. Let’s each one of us study Vivekananda. Only then can we understand the real India.
(Author is National General Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party and director of India Foundation)
(This article was first posted in 2017)