After 150 Years, the Voice of Vivekananda Still Resounds
The religious beliefs of Indians and Americans bear the indelible imprint of this compellingly Hindu monk
THIS YEAR MARKS THE 150TH BIRTHDAY OF SWAMI VIVEKANANDA, born January 12, 1863, in Calcutta. We celebrate his life and legacy by exploring his early upbringing, his appearance at the 1893 Chicago World’s Parliament of Religions, his triumphant return to India, his influence on Hindu identity and nationalism during the independence struggle and his founding of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission.
Any evaluation of his life’s work must consider and appreciate India’s astoundingly depressed state at the time—its economy depleted by decades of exploitation under the British Raj, its citizens bereft of pride and purpose, its British-educated intellectuals believing that the country’s traditions were not even worth salvaging. The people of India were losing heart, and the recognition he earned in the West was immensely encouraging to India’s elite and common man alike.
The vast wealth of resources on Swami’s thirteen-years public mission includes eight volumes of his collected works and several anthologies safeguarding thousands of letters and newspaper reports. From these have arisen hundreds of books. Our writers have drawn upon this material, often letting Swami speak for himself, so that his own voice and vision may be heard, without need for interpretation.
Happy birthday, Swamiji!
Happy birthday, Swamiji!
We begin with a summary short biography by Prof. Jeffrey D. Long, an expert on Swami’s life and teachings.
BORN TO A SOLID MIDDLE-CLASS hindu family in Kolkata on January 12, 1863–while the American Civil War raged on the other side of the globe, and six years after a famous but sadly unsuccessful attempt by his countrymen to rise in force against British imperial domination–Narendranath Datta, later known as Swami Vivekananda, would be deeply affected by the currents of thought flowing among the English-educated elites of Bengal in the nineteenth century.
An air of skepticism prevailed among many young Bengalis during Vivekananda’s early years. Should one worship God with form, as the Hindu traditionalists continued to do, or without form, as taught by new movements, such as the Brahmo Samaj? Should one believe in a God at all, or was Western science able to explain everything, without any recourse to supernatural beings? These questions, and many others, filled the intellectual atmosphere in which the young Naren lived and breathed—an atmosphere not unlike that which prevails in much of our world today.
Having an even more skeptical and inquiring mind than most, the highly educated Naren was encouraged by a friend to meet Sri Ramakrishna, a priest at the Dakshineshwar temple of the Goddess Kali who was known for his ecstatic visions and wise teachings, as well as for his intensely personal longing for the Divine.
The 1881 meeting of Narendranath Datta with Ramakrishna reads like an episode from one of the great Hindu epics. The doubting Naren asks Sri Ramakrishna, “Have you seen God?” “Yes,” Ramakrishna replies without hesitation, “Though more intensely than I am seeing you right now.” The rest of their conversation leads young Naren to suspect that Ramakrishna is truly mad. According to Naren’s own account, Ramakrishna “folded his palms together and began addressing me as if I was some divine being, ‘I know who you are, My Lord. You are Nara, the ancient sage, the incarnation of Narayana. You have come to earth to take away the sufferings and sorrows of mankind.’”
Despite his doubts, though, Naren found Ramakrishna to be compelling. “‘Here is a true man of renunciation,’ I said to myself; ‘he practices what he preaches; he has given up everything for God.’” Drawn irresistibly to Ramakrishna’s uniquely charismatic personality, Naren and a number of other young men became regular visitors to Ramakrishna’s home at Dakshineshwar. Over the course of the next five years, until Ramakrishna’s death from throat cancer in 1886, Naren and his fellow seekers received teaching from Ramakrishna.
The Goal: Realization
In his lecture “My Master,” given in 1896, Vivekananda spoke about his guru: “For the first time I found a man who dared to say that he saw God, that religion was a reality to be felt, to be sensed in an infinitely more intense way than we can sense the world. I actually saw that religion could be given. One touch, one glance, can change a whole life. I have read about Buddha and Christ and Mohammed, about all those different luminaries of ancient times, how they would stand up and say, ‘Be thou whole,’ and the man became whole. I now found it to be true, and when I myself saw this man, all skepticism was brushed aside. It could be done. Religion is not talk, or doctrines, or theories; nor is it sectarianism. It is the relation between the soul and God. Religion does not consist in erecting temples, or building churches, or attending public worship. It is not to be found in books, or in words, or in lectures, or in organizations. Religion consists in realization. As a fact, we all know that nothing will satisfy us until we know the truth for ourselves. However we may argue, however much we may hear, but one thing will satisfy us, and that is our own realization; and such an experience is possible for every one of us if we will only try.”
Shortly before his death, Ramakrishna gave a select group of his disciples orange robes and initiated them into sannyasa, or renunciation, thus laying the foundation for the Ramakrishna Order. After their master’s passing, the young monks began living together as a community, forming the nucleus of what would eventually become Belur Math, the central headquarters of the order, in Kolkata, just across the Hooghly River and slightly to the south of Dakshineshwar.
In 1900, at—of all places—the Shakespeare Club of Padasena in California, Vivekananda explained the nature of Hindu monasticism: “The sannyasins do not possess property, and they do not marry. Beyond that there is no organization. The only bond that is there is the bond between the teacher and the taught—and that is peculiar to India. The teacher is not a man who comes just to teach me, and I pay him so much, and there it ends. In India it is really like an adoption. The teacher is more than my own father, and I am truly his child, his son in every respect. I owe him obedience and reverence first, before my own father even; because, they say, the father gave me this body, but he showed me the way to salvation, he is greater than father. And we carry this love, this respect for our teacher all our lives.”
The Wandering Years
Naren—henceforth known by his monastic name of Swami Vivekananda—felt a calling to live for a time as a wandering sannyasin. Leaving Kolkata, he traveled the length and breadth of India, visiting such cities as Banaras and Baroda, spending time in solitary meditation in the Himalayas.
He spoke of this time in a lecture in Southern California: “Wandering tells on the body in the long run: sometimes one meal at nine in the evening, another time a meal at eight in the morning, another after two days, another after three days—and always the poorest and roughest thing. Who is going to give to the beggar the good things he has? And then, they have not much in India. And most of the time walking, climbing snow peaks, sometimes ten miles of hard mountain climbing, just to get a meal. They eat unleavened bread in India, and sometimes they have it stored away for twenty or thirty days, until it is harder than bricks; and then they will give a square of that. I would have to go from house to house to collect sufficient for one meal. And then the bread was so hard, it made my mouth bleed to eat it. Literally, you can break your teeth on that bread. Then I would put it in a pot and pour over it water from the river. For months and months I existed that way—of course it was telling on the health.”
In late 1892, after three years of wandering, he famously journeyed to the very southern tip of India and received a vision of the future of India while meditating on a rock off the coast that today bears his name. Encouraged by a local Hindu ruler, the Raja of Ramnad, who had become his disciple, Vivekananda resolved to undertake the trip that would change the world: to be a Hindu representative at the World’s Parliament of Religions, to be held in Chicago in September of 1893.
At the Parliament
“Sisters and Brothers of America,” began Swami Vivekananda’s renowned first address to the World’s Parliament of Religions, held at what is now the Art Institute of Chicago. “Sisters and Brothers of America” were bold words with which to begin a speech by an Indian monk in America in 1893. Racism was still rampant; slavery had been abolished by presidential decree just thirty-one years earlier. India remained under the heel of British imperial rule, and most Americans of European descent still did not regard people of other ethnic groups as equals. Placing the word “sisters” before “brothers” was also significant. This was twenty-seven years before women in America were granted the right to vote.
Many in India today view Swami Vivekananda primarily as an Indian cultural hero and as a revitalizer and reformer of ancient Hindu traditions. In the context of America, he was in the vanguard of progressive social thought, treating people of all races, and both men and women, as equals. This was based on the Vedantic teaching he learned from his master, that God dwells in all beings. The significance of his opening words was not lost upon his audience, who roared their approval, forcing him to pause to let the applause die down before proceeding with the main body of his speech.
The major theme of Vivekananda’s address would be a central one of his teaching: the idea of “toleration and universal acceptance.” Speaking of Hindus generally, he says, “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”
On September 19 he gave his “Paper on Hinduism” to the Parliament, which contained his oft-repeated exhortation that man is not a sinner: “A Vedic sage stood up before the world and in trumpet voice proclaimed the glad tidings: ‘Hear, ye children of immortal bliss! Even ye that reside in higher spheres! I have found the Ancient One who is beyond all darkness, all delusion: knowing Him alone you shall be saved from death over again.’ ‘Children of immortal bliss’—what a sweet, what a hopeful name! Allow me to call you, brethren, by that sweet name—heirs of immortal bliss—yea, the Hindu refuses to call you sinners. Ye are the Children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth—sinners! It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature. Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; ye are not matter, ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter.”
Vivekananda denounced the opposites of toleration and acceptance—bigotry and fanaticism—in the second half of his speech. In his closing lines, he says, “I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”
His success at the Parliament was widely reported both in the US and India, with the The New York Herald memorably stating, “He is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him, we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.”
His National Impact in the US
Vivekananda was not the first Hindu teacher to visit North America. A Brahmo Samaj representative, Pratap Majumdar, had been in America prior to Vivekananda, and also attended and spoke at the 1893 Parliament. The groundwork for the reception of Swami Vivekananda’s ideas had also been laid by the intense interest in Hindu thought of such major intellectual figures of nineteenth century America as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The Theosophists, and before them, the Transcendentalists, had produced a discourse that was ready for a direct infusion of Hindu thought and practice from the Subcontinent. Vivekananda was not the first, but he was the best received, becoming a celebrity figure whose travels and teachings were followed by all of the major newspapers of the day.
The Vivekananda phenomenon was not without some resistance. Racism, as mentioned, remained rampant, and the United States was a deeply Christian nation. There were those who sought to counter his influence. But there was also a deep vein of religious progressivism into which he successfully tapped. In 1894 he started the first Vedanta Society in New York. This organization then grew, becoming nationwide in its scope soon after Vivekananda returned to India and began dispatching his brother monks to lead the centers that sprouted up from Boston on the East Coast to San Francisco in the West.
THE SEDITIOUS MONK
We turn now to the impact of Vivekananda on India’s independence movement, excerpting (with some editing) from a comprehensive article by Prof. Sankari Prasad Basu (1928–) which appeared in the August, 1992, edition of Vivekananda Kendra Patrika.
AT THE OUTSET LET US REMIND OURSELVES of a known fact: Vivekananda was not directly involved in the Indian freedom movement. Nevertheless, he had tremendous influence on all phases of the movement. It has been said that Vivekananda’s influence on the Indian movement was no less than the influence of Rousseau on the French revolution, or of Marx on the Russian and Chinese revolutions.
Without the background of wide national consciousness, no freedom movement is possible. From all contemporary sources it becomes evident that Vivekananda’s was the most forceful influence to rouse the national spirit in India. To quote Sister Nivedita, “He was a worker at foundations. Just as Ramakrishna, in fact, without knowing any books, had been a living epitome of the Vedanta, so was Vivekananda of the national life.”
We shall go briefly into what happened in the national field before Vivekananda’s advent. English education, vernacular literature, the Indian press, various reform movements and political associations, including the Congress, had come and spread their influence before him. In spite of all these, a pervading national consciousness was absent. Otherwise, how could The Hindu of Madras write in early 1893 about the religion of the major community, the Hindus, that “it is dead” and “its course is run”? But the same paper, along with others, including Anglo-Indian and missionary papers, wrote in less than one year’s time (and also afterwards) that “the present time may be described as the renaissance period in the history of Hindus” (Madras Christian College Magazine, March 1897). It was called a “national uprising” (Madras Times, 2 March 1895). How did this miracle happen? The only answer that we derive from contemporary accounts is that Vivekananda appeared at the Parliament of Religions, proclaimed there the glory of Indian religion and civilization, won recognition for his country’s ancient heritage, and thereby gave back to his countrymen their long-lost self-esteem and self-confidence.
In Swami’s Own Words: The Future of India
“The Future of India” was a lecture to an audience of 3,000 given in Madras on February 14, 1897, at the Harmston Circus Pavilion. In it, Swami Vivekananda eloquently exhorts India’s youth to work for India’s freedom and makes the extraordinary prediction that it will take 50 years to obtain. In fact, 51 years and one week later, on February 20, 1947, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced India would be given full self government.
WHY IS IT, TO TAKE A CASE IN POINT, that forty millions of Englishmen rule three hundred millions of people here? What is the psychological explanation? These forty millions put their wills together and that means infinite power, and you three hundred millions have a will each separate from the other. Therefore to make a great future India, the whole secret lies in organization, accumulation of power, coordination of wills. Already before my mind rises one of the marvellous verses of the Rig-Veda Samhita which says, “Be thou all of one mind, be thou all of one thought, for in the days of yore, the Gods being of one mind were enabled to receive oblations.” That the Gods can be worshipped by men is because they are of one mind. Being of one mind is the secret of society. And the more you go on fighting and quarreling about all trivialities such as “Dravidian” and “Aryan,” and the question of Brahmins and non-Brahmins and all that, the further you are off from that accumulation of energy and power which is going to make the future India. For mark you, the future India depends entirely upon that. That is the secret—accumulation of will power, coordination, bringing them all, as it were, into one focus. So give up being a slave. For the next fifty years this alone shall be our keynote—this, our great Mother India.
Young men of Madras, my hope is in you. Will you respond to the call of your nation? Each one of you has a glorious future if you dare believe me. Have a tremendous faith in yourselves, like the faith I had when I was a child, and which I am working out now. Have that faith, each one of you, in yourself—that eternal power is lodged in every soul—and you will revive the whole of India. Ay, we will then go to every country under the sun, and our ideas will before long be a component of the many forces that are working to make up every nation in the world. We must enter into the life of every race in India and abroad; we shall have to work to bring this about. Now for that, I want young men. “It is the young, the strong, and healthy, of sharp intellect that will reach the Lord,” say the Vedas. This is the time to decide your future—while you possess the energy of youth, not when you are worn out and jaded, but in the freshness and vigor of youth. Work—this is the time; for the freshest, the untouched, and unsmelled flowers alone are to be laid at the feet of the Lord, and such He receives. Rouse yourselves, therefore, for life is short. There are greater works to be done than aspiring to become lawyers and picking quarrels and such things. A far greater work is this sacrifice of yourselves for the benefit of your race, for the welfare of humanity. What is in this life? You are Hindus, and there is the instinctive belief in you that life is eternal.
Life is short, but the soul is immortal and eternal, and one thing being certain, death, let us therefore take up a great ideal and give up our whole life to it. Let this be our determination, and may He, the Lord, who “comes again and again for the salvation of His own people,” to quote from our scriptures—may the great Krishna bless us and lead us all to the fulfilment of our aims!
His Call to Arms
After returning to India, Vivekananda called upon the people to believe in their potential strength. He exhorted his countrymen to accept new ideas and scientific knowledge that the modern machine age could offer. He showed the way for nation-building on a sound foundation.
In his 1897 Madras speech, “My Plan of Campaign,” he exhorted the leaders to cultivate the indispensable virtue of feeling for the people: “Feel, therefore, my would-be reformers, my would-be patriots! Do you feel? Do you feel that millions and millions of the descendants of Gods and of sages have become next-door neighbors to brutes [e.g. the British]? Do you feel that millions are starving today and millions have been starving for ages? Do you feel that ignorance has come over the land as a dark cloud? Does it make you restless? Does it make you sleepless? Has it made you almost mad? Are you seized with that one idea of the misery of ruin, and have you forgotten all about your name, your fame, your wives, your children, your property, even your own bodies? If so, that is the first step to becoming a patriot.”
In “The Mission of Vedanta,” given the same week, he told the audience: “Ay, let every man and woman and child, without respect of caste or birth, weakness or strength, hear and learn that behind the strong and the weak, behind the high and the low, behind everyone, there is that Infinite Soul, assuring all the infinite possibility and the infinite capacity to become great and good. Let us proclaim to every soul: Arise, arise, awake! Awake from this hypnotism of weakness. None is really weak; the soul is infinite, omnipotent and omniscient. Stand up, assert yourself, proclaim the God within you, do not deny Him!”
Past history shows that, in India, religious movement has always preceded national regeneration. Here in India, no national uprising was possible without revitalizing Hinduism, the religion of the majority. Vivekananda did that, and at the same time made it clear that Hinduism and other religions could remain in harmony and feel themselves as belonging to one nation. His primary role as a religious leader made him the undisputed spiritual father of the Indian freedom movement. His contributions towards Indian nationalism, militant nationalism in particular, included renewed self-esteem and self-confidence, dynamic spirit, dedication, a call for strength and struggle, love for the country and its people, equal rights, harmony of religions and an emphasis on social uplift and character building through mobilization of the young.
Vivekananda urged the Indians to do away with narrow nationalism and to place and judge all problems with an international perspective. He exhorted them to bring reform on national lines and fight for national integration.
All these ideas spread widely throughout India, either directly through him, or through his books. Those writings took at times the shape of secret revolutionary literature, copied in hand and circulated amongst the students.
How He Understood the British
Vivekananda’s knowledge of world history, coupled with his deep and penetrating intellect and direct experience, made him realize the real nature of British imperialism which, unfortunately, the Indian leaders of his time could not comprehend. Those leaders, though conscious of the occasional lapses of the British rule, thought that on the whole it was beneficial to the people. To many of them the rule was “divine dispensation” and they readily took an oath of allegiance. But Vivekananda considered the British rule as nothing but Satanic, with merciless exploitation as its sole objective. In the following words of Vivekananda we find rare socio-political insight, couched in poetic diction:
“Therefore, the conquest of India by England is not a conquest by Jesus or the Bible as we are often asked to believe, neither is it like the conquest of India by Moguls and the Pathans. But behind the name of the Lord Jesus, the Bible, the magnificent palaces, the heavy tramp of the feet of the armies .... shaking the earth, the sounds of war trumpets, bugles, the drums, and the splendid display of the royal throne; behind all these, there is always the virtual presence of England—that England whose war flag is the factory chimney, whose troops are the merchant men, whose battle fields are the market places of the world and whose Empress is the gold-studded Goddess of Fortune.”
The Congress which spearheaded the national struggle afterwards was not the Congress of Vivekananda’s time. Vivekananda objected to the “mendicant policy” of that Congress, comprised as it was of toothless petitions and appeals to the British Raj; he urged the nationalists to come down from their high pedestal of intellectual and worldly superiority to the grass-root level and mix with the lowliest of the lowly and share their sufferings; he inspired them for self-organization through man-making education, and to sacrifice their all for the country. The latter-day Congress accepted practically all his programs.
n Swami’s Own Words: His plan for the education of India
n the same lecture, “The Future of India,” Swami Vivekananda makes his case for taking on the education of the masses of India.
WE MUST HAVE A HOLD ON THE SPIRITUAL AND SECULAR EDUCATION OF THE NATION. Do you understand that? You must dream it, you must talk it, you must think it and you must work it out. Till then there is no salvation for the race. The education that you are getting now has some good points, but it has a tremendous disadvantage which is so great that the good things are all weighed down. In the first place it is not a man-making education, it is merely and entirely a negative education. A negative education or any training that is based on negation, is worse than death. The child is taken to [an English-run] school, and the first thing he learns is that his father is a fool, the second thing that his grandfather is a lunatic, the third thing that all his teachers are hypocrites, the fourth that all the sacred books are lies! By the time he is sixteen he is a mass of negation, lifeless and boneless. And the result is that fifty years of such education has not produced one original man in the three Presidencies [states of South India]. Every man of originality that has been produced has been educated elsewhere, and not in this country, or they have gone to the old universities once more to cleanse themselves of superstitions. Education is not the amount of information that is put into your brain and runs riot there, undigested, all your life. We must have life-building, man-making, character-making assimilation of ideas. If you have assimilated five ideas and made them your life and character, you have more education than any man who has got by heart a whole library—“The ass carrying its load of sandalwood knows only the weight and not the value of the sandalwood.” If education is identical with information, the libraries are the greatest sages in the world, and encyclopedias are the Rishis. The ideal, therefore, is that we must have the whole education of our country, spiritual and secular, in our own hands, and it must be on national lines, through national methods as far as practical.
The British Reaction
In relevant historical accounts, secret Government papers, published reports and reminiscences of revolutionary leaders, we find the tremendous influence exerted by Vivekananda on the revolutionary movement. His writings were widely read by the militants. Those were practically their textbooks; recruitments to revolutionary parties were made from the members of the Ramakrishna Mission, and the magic name of Vivekananda was used for this purpose. The government, noticing that many portions of Vivekananda’s writings could be used for radical politics, thought of prohibiting the publication of Swamiji’s letters and banning the Ramakrishna Mission. This was not surprising, as Vivekananda himself was in his lifetime regarded a suspicious character and was closely watched and harassed. The British Criminal Investigation Department complained at the time that whenever they went to search a revolutionary’s house, they found the books of Vivekananda. Here are two extracts from the secret police reports:
“... The teachings of the Vedanta Society tend towards Nationalism in politics. Swami Vivekananda himself generally avoided the political side of the case, but by many Hindu Nationalists he is regarded as the Guru of the movement. ... It is obvious that with very little distortion this teaching [of Vivekananda] was a powerful weapon in the hands of an idealist revolutionary like Aurobindo Ghosh.… Several passages of the teachings of Swami Vivekananda are pregnant with sedition, that their potentialities for evil have been fully realized and taken advantage of by the revolutionary party, that the various recognized maths are resorted to by political refugees, and that bogus ashramas, which are nothing but centres for the dissemination of revolutionary doctrines, have sprung up with alarming rapidity in eastern Bengal.”
Subhas Chandra Bose, whom the British considered the most dangerous man in India, and who embodied the entire militant revolutionary spirit of India, wrote time and again that his life was molded under Vivekanandas influence and urged the youth to follow Swamiji’s ideal. He said of Vivekananda: “Reckless in his sacrifice, unceasing in his activity, boundless in his love, profound and versatile in his wisdom, exuberant in his emotions, merciless in his attacks, but yet simple as a child.”
Testimony of the Freedom Fighters
Sri Aurobindo wrote in 1916, “Vivekananda was a soul of puissance if ever there was one, a very lion among men, but the definitive work he has left behind is quite incommensurate with our impression of his creative might and energy. We perceive his influence still working gigantically, we know not well how, we know not well where, in something that is not yet formed, something leonine, grand, intuitive, upheaving that has entered the soul of India and we say, ‘Behold, Vivekananda still lives in the soul of his Mother and in the souls of her children.’”
In 1949, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, noted, “I do not know how many of the younger generation read the speeches and the writings of Swami Vivekananda. But I can tell you that many of my generation were very powerfully influenced by him and I think that it would do a great deal of good to the present generation if they also went through Swami Vivekananda’s writings and speeches, and they would learn much from them.” Nehru concluded, “Men like Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, men like Swami Vivekananda and men like Mahatma Gandhi are great unifying forces, great constructive geniuses of the world, not only in regard to the particular teachings that they taught, but their approach to the world; and their conscious and unconscious influence on it is of the most vital importance to us.”
THE DIGNITY OF SELFLESS SERVICE
Prof. Long next discusses the legacy of service derived from Vivekananda’s teachings, especially as shown in the activities of the Ramakrishna Mission.
FOR VIVEKANANDA, SELFLESS SERVICE (seva) is the essence of karma yoga. He was among the first Hindu spiritual teachers in the modern era to give seva a central place in the spiritual path. Vivekananda and his fellow monks of the Ramakrishna Order were derisively referred to as “scavenger monks” for their work with the poor and the ill in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in India. Before this time, the role of a sannyasin was understood by most Hindus to involve a complete withdrawal from the concerns of the world, their main focus being meditation, contemplation and teaching, rather than seva. Vivekananda, however, taught his fellow renouncers that they needed to do both. “You must be prepared to explain the difficult intricacies of the shastras now, and the next moment to go and sell the produce of the fields in the market. You must be prepared for all menial services.”
Because of the all-pervasive presence of Brahman, the Divine Ultimate Reality, dwelling within all beings, a practitioner of Vedanta does not distinguish, according to Vivekananda, between “the service of the Lord” and “the service of others.” The service of the Lord is the service of others, and the service of others is the service of the Lord. In Vivekananda’s words, “‘They worship Me best who worship My worshipers. These are all My children, and your privilege is to serve them’—is the teaching of Hindu scriptures.”
Empowering the Powerless
Vivekananda’s vision of seva was not one of mere charity, but was a more radical vision of enabling the self-empowerment of the poor, primarily through education. As Vivekananda writes, “The only service to be done for our lower classes is to give them education, to develop their lost individuality. That is the great task between our people and princes. Up to now nothing has been done in that direction. Priest-power and foreign conquest have trodden them down for centuries, and at last the poor of India have forgotten that they are human beings. They are to be given ideas; their eyes are to be opened to what is going on in the world around them; and then they will work out their own salvation. Every nation, every man and every woman must work out their own salvation. Give them ideas—that is the only help they require, and then the rest must follow as the effect.” This emphasis on self-empowerment was deeply influential upon Mohandas K. Gandhi, who translated it into his concept of swaraj, or self-rule. Through Gandhi, Vivekananda’s philosophy of service and human empowerment would influence human rights struggles across the globe, including the American Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Ramakrishna Mission
That seva was not something that Vivekananda only preached, but put into action himself, is evidenced from the work of the Ramakrishna Mission, which he established in 1897. The relief work of the Ramakrishna Mission is famous, not only in India but beyond India’s borders as well, and continues unabated today. Its first relief project began just two weeks after its establishment on May 1, 1897, in the famine-stricken region of Mahula, Murshidabad. Plague relief efforts in Calcutta in 1898 through 1900, famine relief in Madhya Pradesh in 1900, and earthquake relief in Punjab in 1905 followed this effort. And these are only the some of the more high-profile efforts launched early on in the history of the Mission. Building upon these, the Mission is now one of the most widespread and effective relief organizations operating in India, with schools, orphanages and hospitals scattered throughout the region, all organized and maintained by the monks of the Ramakrishna Order.
Its 1,200 swamis run a vast array of public services. These include 15 hospitals, 130 dispensaries, hundreds of medical camps and various medical schools and colleges, altogether treating over eight million patients just in the period April 2010 to March 2011.
Their 1,200 schools handled 330,000 students in the same period, at an expenditure of us$21 million. They have projects in rural and tribal areas to improve sanitation, teach better agricultural methods, educate both children and adults and provide medical services. Shortly after Cyclone Aila struck in West Bengal in 2009, killing hundreds and rendering more than a million homeless, they were on the scene. They ran smaller relief programs in nearly every state in India, plus ongoing tsunami rebuilding efforts in Sri Lanka.
Frequent religious teaching takes place, often in conjunction with annual festivals and celebrations of the Math and Mission, along with the operation of 211 libraries, various institutes for Sanskrit studies and a major publication program.
SWAMI AND THE INTERFAITH MOVEMENT
Prof. Long explains how Vivekananda’s influence has profoundly shaped the interfaith movement of our times.
AS IT HAS BEEN SAID BY PROF. BASU that Swami Vivekanananda was crucial to but not directly involved with India’s freedom movement, so it may also be said that while he did not invent interfaith dialogue, he was instrumental in its ideological influence today. The first World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893 was the product of a religious progressivism already in place during his time. Vivekananda infused this existing trend with an energy and an intensity that it did not previously have.
As a disciple of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda envisioned and embodied interfaith dialogue in a way that was far more radical than most conceived it in his time. Even many of the participants in as progressive a body as the World’s Parliament of Religions saw the function of interfaith dialogue to be “preparing the way for the reunion of all the world’s religions in their true center, Jesus Christ”—the view held by the Catholic Church to this day. Vivekananda resisted such parochialism and proposed, in its place, the idea of the world’s religions as “different streams having their sources in different places” that “all mingle their water in the sea” of the shared divinity of all beings.
Replacing Tolerance with Acceptance
Vivekananda envisioned interreligious relations that would go beyond the secular ideal of tolerance, in which practitioners of diverse traditions merely coexist, toward an ideal of acceptance. In a 1900 lecture titled “The Way to the Realization of a Universal Religion,” Vivekananda draws a stark distinction between the lesser virtue of tolerance–which is certainly preferable to intolerance–and the greater virtue of acceptance. “Our watchword, then, will be acceptance, and not exclusion. Not only toleration, for so-called toleration is often blasphemy, and I do not believe in it. I believe in acceptance. Why should I tolerate? Toleration means that I think that you are wrong and I am just allowing you to live. Is it not blasphemy to think that you and I are allowing others to live? I accept all religions that were in the past, and worship with them all; I worship God with every one of them, in whatever form they worship Him.”
mpact on Modern Writers
A preeminent advocate of this approach in the twentieth century was philosopher and author Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), a close disciple of Swami Prabhavananda of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, through whom a variety of Vedantic ideas would become part of the countercultural movement of the 1960s, eventually entering the mainstream of American popular consciousness.
Huxley’s classic work, The Perennial Philosophy, defends the ideal of a harmony of religions by arguing that there is a shared core of experiential wisdom at the heart of all of the world’s religious traditions, whose texts he quotes quite liberally to prove the existence of “the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being.”
Huxley’s approach, known as perennialism, exerted a strong influence on several prominent philosophers, theologians and scholars of religion, including Huston Smith, Joseph Campbell, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and John Hick, through whom this basic principle of Swami Vivekananda’s philosophy became disseminated to the wider public in the West. Smith, author of the best-selling book on the world’s religions yet published and titled simply, The Illustrated World’s Religions, probably has done more to shape Western perceptions of the world’s religious traditions than any other single scholar. Based for a time at St. Louis University, he had close interactions with Swami Satprakashananda of the Vedanta Society of St. Louis, and gradually came to endorse Swami Vivekananda’s attitude of universal acceptance toward all religions.
Joseph Campbell was similarly influenced by Vedanta and Huxley’s philosophy of perennialism. Becoming a countercultural hero through his popular book on comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell’s work, like Smith’s, became a point of entry for many in the West to Vedanta and the thought of Swami Vivekananda. And although known mostly only in academic circles, Islamic scholar and philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr and philosopher of religion John Hick have dedicated much of their professional careers to articulating, in Nasr’s case, an explicit perennialism, and in the case of Hick, a point of view discernibly influenced by perennialism and by the Vedantic concept of a common ultimate reality at the basis of all religious experience.
The basic presumption of perennialism is that all religions share a common core–a perennial philosophy–that unites them all as the pearls on a thread, despite their external differences. It is not a great leap from this considered academic perspective, informed by the Vedanta of Swami Vivekananda, to the results of polls taken in the last few years that indicate 65 percent of Americans believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life,” including a surprising 37 percent of white evangelical Christians. The same survey indicates that 24 percent of Americans believe in the central Hindu doctrine of reincarnation.
At a June, 2003, conference at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Center for Indic Studies, Prof. Carl T. Jackson of the University of Texas at El Paso offered these insightful summaries of how Swami Vivekananda is seen by scholars today.
SCHOLARS HAVE INCREASINGLY ARGUED THAT SWAMI VIVEKANANDA’S presentation of Hinduism was not representative of the traditional Hinduism followed by most Hindus in his time or now. He emphasized a universal Hinduism that offered what Aldous Huxley once referred to as the “Highest Common Denominator” for other religions. The Swami formulated a traditional Hindu idea from the view of Advaita Vedanta, ignoring the worship of many Gods, elaborate rituals and observances of popular Hinduism as practiced by most Hindus.
Critical of the Swami’s interpretation of Hinduism, the scholars seem to agree, even a hundred years later, that Swami Vivekananda has exercised immense influence on our modern conception of Hinduism—though not always for the good. Richard King thus declares that thanks to the influence of Swami Vivekananda, and the later writings of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Western Orientalists, “Advaita Vedanta in its modern form (often called neo-Vedanta, or more accurately, neo-Advaita) has become a dominant force in Indian intellectual thought.” That is, because of Vivekananda’s persuasive and widely influential interpretation of Hinduism from the perspective of Advaita Vedanta, Indian religion—both in India and in the West—has come to be seen largely as a religion with a neo-Vedantic message. Unfortunately, for these scholars, this represents a distortion of Hinduism as practiced.
Even as these scholars object to Swami Vivekananda’s interpretations of Hinduism, they also testify to his importance and lasting influence in our understanding of Hinduism today. Keeping in mind the continuing volume of works devoted to his life and teachings, if anything, Swami Vivekananda seems an even larger figure in the history of India and of Hinduism today than a hundred years ago.
SWAMI VIVEKANANDA’S INFLUENCE ON OUR WORLD TODAY, says Prof. Long, and in the West in particular, is almost impossible to calculate. His philosophy of religious pluralism, proclaimed in his first address to the World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, developed in his later lectures, and drawn from the teaching and example of his master, Sri Ramakrishna, energized the interfaith movement of his time and, through the influence of the Vedanta Society and the Western intellectuals who were drawn to it, shaped mainstream American views on religious diversity.
The teaching and life of his master, Sri Ramakrishna, would likely be unknown in the Western world but for Vivekananda’s global travels. The floodgates that he opened, leading to the coming of a variety of Hindu spiritual teachers to the West, made a range of Hindu beliefs, practices and imagery far more familiar in America than is otherwise conceivable.
His philosophy of selfless service led to the emergence of the massive education and relief efforts in India of the Ramakrishna Mission. His impassioned patriotic calls to all Indians made a profound impression on the mind of Mahatma Gandhi and numerous other leaders across the spectrum of India’s independence movement.
Swami Vivekananda was instrumental in making Hinduism into a tradition with a global following, not confined to India or to persons of Indian descent. In deciding to emphasize only one facet of the religion, Advaita Vedanta, he formed an opening wedge for bringing Hinduism into Western mainstream thought, and preparing the West for the arrival, one hundred years later, of a more convoluted and theistic form of the faith. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth, we cannot but stand in awe of his incredible legacy, a legacy whose full implications may have yet to be felt in the as-yet-unforeseen future.
Om Tat Sat
(My humble salutations to Sadguru Sri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami ji, Satguru Bodhianatha Velayanswami ji, Hinduism Today for the collection)
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