Swami Vivekananda The Global Icon
“His personality dominant and magnetic, his voice rich as a bronze bell, the controlled fervor of his feeling, the beauty of his message to the western world- all these combined to give us a rare moment of supreme emotion.” This is how Harriet Monroe present in the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 had articulated the assessment of the impression on the delegates during the occasion of Vivekananda. Most of the young Indians today get their first acquaintance with Swami Vivekananda on his presence in this Parliament and the manner he began his address: “Sisters and Brothers of America”.
As the nation celebrates Vivekananda’s 150th birth anniversary, it is indeed instructive that these universally endearing words came with a visible spontaneity straight from the heart of the young monk from India, who was just thirty years of age. These words generated an emotionally endearing response from the audience that fell in love with the speaker. Not everyone present in the audience really knew why they had been ‘so powerfully moved’! But each one of them was moved: they had never heard these words in such a gathering of persons from different nations and from adherents of any faith. Was it telepathy that established the sincerity of the person and the realisation that the words came straight from the innermost core of this speaker’s heart, unadulterated and unpolished! He was one of the most striking personalities on the dais, resplendent in his colorful turban and robe.
It is worthwhile to remember that to most of those constituting the audience, India was the land that burnt alive its women, threw their children to crocodiles and was replete with savagery and inhuman practices. What could be their expectations from a monk from such a country except that he could attract attention because of his robes and resplendent appearance! They were just not attuned to expect anything worthwhile from him. Within moments he transformed them from skeptics to admirers. He established a lasting relationship of mutual acceptance and appreciation.
This Parliament was planned in times that were far too different than the present juncture of history. The basic idea was to establish the superiority of one religion- the Christian Faith, which its ardent followers thought and preached as the only way of salvation. Christian missionaries went to different countries, India included, to ‘saving the souls’ of followers of all other religions and faiths across the Globe! Present in Parliament of Religions were also those who ridiculed the very idea of the followers of Christianity sharing the dais with the followers of other faiths and religions who were destined to go to hell!
The organisers pacified them with the pleadings that it would be a great opportunity to establish and reinforce the superiority of their own religion. The western world was convinced of its racial and religious superiority without any iota of hesitation. One man who dented their perceptions was the uninvited monk from India. It is history now that even some of the ardent believers in Christianity found it futile to send missionaries to a country that was practising an enlightened religion firmly embedded in the equality of all faiths. It treated them as different paths leading to the same goal: search for truth and search for God. The Swami exhorted them to understand India and its attainments in the higher echelons of religiosity and spirituality.
To the condescendingly uttered ‘tolerance for other religions’, he gave an entirely new dimension and interpretation: acceptance! It is not easy to change those convinced of their ‘superiority’ in every respect- race, religion, colour and all that, to accept others on equal levels. This critical dimension was rationally and logically outlined in Chicago by this Indian participant who did not know even the exact dates of the Congress and had arrived in United States three months in advance. At and after the conference, the sobriquets he earned included ‘Cyclonic Sadhu’, ‘Warrior Saint’, “Militant mystic’, ‘Patriotic Prophet’ and the like. He exuded strength, energy, empathy and above all immeasurable confidence in himself and his heritage and ancestry. Convinced of his way, the Indian way and committed to serve one and all! It was a rare spectacle: He exuded secularity whenever he thundered ‘I am the proudest Hindu on earth’! The message was clear to one and all: so should everyone be of his own religion and faith. And also of one’s country!
He himself was not easily impressed even by his Guru- Ramakrishna Paramhansa. He had his doubts and was very explicit about it. Once the master said rather tauntingly, “If you do not agree with me why do you come to me?” The response came straight from the heart: ‘Because I love you’! In America, once when he spoke of his love for Christ, he was confronted with the suggestion: ‘then accept Christianity’. ‘I love Krishna also; I can love both. Why don’t you also try to love Krishna while continuing your love for Christ? The experience would be blissfully divine’! His love knew no boundaries and accepted no restrictions. How can it when one gets convinced of the eternal unity of mankind.
Not only this, to him every one and all around mankind was just the projection of God. He could see god in animate end inanimate alike. Then there can just be love and acceptance. Acceptance has always to be total. Hence, tolerance is just not the acceptable recourse. Once one accepts the eternal unity of all human beings, no one is excluded and none is allowed to suffer while someone else accumulates and rejoices in the splendor and glaze of abundance and affluence. To serve others would be the instinctive manifestation of such ideas and ideals. And this is what exactly happened in the life the Swami in his works and deeds.
The order of the Ramakrishna Mission established by him is unique: the Saints of the mission were to serve others, be with those who need succour and support; reach the destitute and the deprived. They are supposed to acquire necessary learning, knowledge and skills, equip themselves in specialised proficiencies and then, embark upon the mission of ameliorating the sufferings of the masses. One wonders how he could visualise and put in practice an entirely opposite scenario: in India a Sadhu meant someone who should be looked after by the society and many of them even went to extent of enjoying a life full of luxury and affluence in the Mandirs and Muths! He emerged as the eternal non-conformist. Only he could say it forcefully that every eighteen-year-old should play football instead of reading Gita! One required a lion’s courage to utter such ‘oddities’ in an environment that had reduced spiritual pursuits to some mundane rituals.
Courage and its exemplary variety remained evident in his life all along. Once he became known in America, there was no dearth of admirers of all age groups. It included young women charmed by his mental strength and attractive appearance. He was pursued by hoards of them practically all the time. Many of them offered huge wealth inherited from their parents with one simple request: accepts me also with it! The lady host was worried that the learned monk, furiously being pursued by the young ladies, may fall for their charm.
‘If you could resist this challenge, you would be just God’ she is supposed to have told him. To Vivekananda, they all were embodiments of mother force! The two great evils he identified in India: ‘trampling on the women and grinding the poor through caste restrictions’. He went to the extent of stating that America was prosperous because there ‘men treat their women as well as can be desired’. To him, the welfare of the world depended on improvement in the condition of women. His solution: ‘Educate your women first and leave them to themselves; then they will tell you what reforms are necessary for them.’
As one begins his journey to understand the genius of Swami Vivekananda, the rich treasure unceasingly unfolds itself in varied dimensions. These could guide the mankind in moving ahead towards a world of peace and love. These lead to social amity and religious harmony. Was he a mere spiritual monk who travelled abroad to create resources that could provide succour to the suffering millions of his Indian brethren?
This query immediately opens up his roles as a thinker, philosopher, humanist, patriot, saint committed to serve fellow human beings without any reservations. His priorities were the weak and women, the downtrodden and deprived. “If ever I get the money in my possession, I shall first spend that in the service of man. Man is first to be saved, he must be given food, education and spirituality”. As only a great social scientist could do, he enumerated the causes of India’s misery and downfall: absence of education and treatment meted out to women.
His sharp and sensitive mind and incisive analytical strength made him decipher not only the problems but also the solutions that could work. He witnessed the strengths and weaknesses of Indians and the Indian society. He was confident that in spite of all possible inadequacies that surround the Indian masses in the shape of poverty, ill health and various other deprivations, the presence of spirituality has sustained itself even in illiterate masses and that alone would open up the pathways to India’s resurgence. He proceeded to retrieve the ancient wisdom in all its glory and towards that he emphatically articulated the need for educating one and all. His most quoted definition of education is profound and comprehensive: “Education is the manifestation of perfection already in man”. It implies that the ‘treasure’ is within; within everyone; and needs to be discovered with self-effort and with support and initiation by the teacher and others who help in growing up of the individual.
These remove the impediments to the spontaneous growth that takes shape on its own. To him learning was discovering by taking the cover off one’s own soul!
What made education uppermost in his mind? It was the key to transform the lot of millions of his suffering countrymen. He was convinced that the root cause of India’s misery, poverty, ill health and hunger was the unscrupulous neglect of the masses who were the producers of the wealth that was being snatched away from them. That could be done as people were shorn of their sense of identity and self-worth. They had lost hope, self-confidence and had become mere numbers resigned to fate! They needed to know their worth, they needed traditional knowledge, and, they also needed new scientific knowledge and skills. “We talk foolishly against material civilization. The grapes are sour” was his admonition to those who thought everything western as venomous. His concern for the weak manifests in the words that the present-day management Gurus would find golden: “Material civilization, nay even luxury, is necessary to create work for the poor. Bread! Bread! I do not believe in God who cannot give me bread here, giving me eternal bliss in heaven”.
There are umpteen instances in his life when he shared bread with those considered low and untouchables, every time at his own insistence. To him “These common people have suffered oppression for thousands of years- suffered it without murmur, and as a result have got wonderful fortitude”. Further, these people ‘have got strength that comes of a pure and moral life, which is not to be found anywhere else in the world’!
With all its positives in the current terminology of development and growth, most of the Indians continue to languish in poverty, unacceptable social practices and most importantly, inadequacies in the content and process of education. The last two weeks of December 2012 brought out the consequences of the neglect of women to the fore. The young of India rose in unison; in anguish and anger and made the system realize that enough is enough. The young of India have shown readiness to shoulder their responsibility to create a new India.
They shall be guided by the words of Vivekananda who wanted them to have firm conviction in the power of goodness, eliminate jealousy and suspicion fully and totally. Those trying to be good and do good have to move together. They would need ‘tremendous perseverance and tremendous will’. They shall not permit despair to arise even in the worst of conditions and situations.
He advises young to be ever strong, ‘strength is life, weakness is death’. Every young person may like to ponder over seriously on what the great Swami had said to his followers when he was training them at Belur centre after his return from abroad in 1900: “Tell me what you have done. Couldn’t you give away one life for the sake of others? …Let this body go in the service of others and then I shall know you have not come to me in vain.” His vision, imbued with his concern manifests so clearly in the following words: “A hundred thousand men and women, …nerved to Lion’s courage by their sympathy for the poor and fallen and downtrodden, will go over the length and breadth of the land, preaching the gospel of salvation, the gospel of help, the gospel of social raising up the gospel of equality.”
By J S Rajput