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Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda  (January 12, 1863 – July 04, 1902)

Swami Vivekananda
(January 12, 1863 – July 04, 1902)

This year (2013), we celebrate 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. He was born in 1863 as Narendranath Datta. His father, Vishwa Nath Datta, was an attorney-at-law of the High Court of Calcutta.

Swami Vivekananda was one of the greatest Indians the world has seen in the last two centuries. He was born six years after India’s first war of independence from the British rule, the same year the US fought the civil war.

India was hopeless after the failure of the war of independence in 1857. The British suzerainty was at its peak. Indians defeated, humiliated, inadequate and unprepared to fight back were jeered all over. In the West, the sanyasis (Indian monks and holy men) were often equated to beggars surviving on alms.

In this environment of doom and despair, Swami Vivekananda appeared like a colossus, a prophet of hope. As an icon of resurgent India, Swami Vivekananda propounded more energetic and practical form of Hinduism based on the teachings of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gītā.

He brought the Hindu thought and yoga to the West in a form that the westerners could understand, relate to, and hardly resist; exerted an immense influence on the national resurgence and struggle for freedom from the British rule in India; and established the monastic order of Ramakrishna Mission — one of the highly successful monastic order, and planted the seeds for a vast service organization in India.

Hindu Awakening

Swami-ji reinvigorated the Hindu tradition of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” — whole world is one family — and restored the dignity of poor and down trodden masses by marshaling the notion of “Nara seva, Narayana seva” (serving humanity is service to God). For him the poor and afflicted were manifestations of the living God. He dedicated his life in their service and implored others to serve the masses as a privilege like serving the Narayana, the God.

He was opposed to the oppression and discrimination based on caste by birth. He accused the priesthood for interpreting the holy scriptures to serve their interests. To him the religion had to be practical and not just a blind allegiance to dogmas.

Vivekananda was clear that what distinguished India from the rest of the world was its Hindu ethos grounded in spirituality. Yet, he did not reject the materialistic West. He saw the West as an admirable manifestation of rajas (action) as a necessary step for success in all endeavors. Indians, sunk in tamas (inertia) and all that is brutish in man, had to emulate that quality (rajas) first. Vivekananda proposed a fair exchange of ideas, a synthesis based on national dignity.

After taking the vows of sannyas (renunciation), Swami Vivekananda travelled mostly on foot, for many years, throughout India, from the Himalayas in the north to Kanyakumari and Rameshwaram in the south. During his life as a wandering monk, while he practiced intense sadhana (spiritual discipline) he also observed first-hand the poverty, ignorance, and distress of millions of people in all parts of India. Swami ji was not satisfied with just being a monk and striving for his own liberation. He had a much larger vision which he expressed thus:

I have traveled all over India. But alas, it was agony to me, my brothers, to see with my own eyes the terrible poverty and misery of the masses, and I could not restrain my tears! It is now my firm conviction that it is futile to preach religion amongst them without first trying to remove their poverty and their suffering. It is for this reason — to find more means for the salvation of the poor of India — that I am now going to America.

Swami-Ji Takes On the West

Swami Vivekananda brought India’s cultural heritage to the West in real earnest when he visited America in 1893 to participate in the Parliament of World Religions.

Eastern thought had already traveled to the West before his arrival. Ralph Waldo Emerson, as early as 1820, had read the Bhagavad Gītā and found himself enchanted with it. The Gītā’s influence was reflected in his Transcendentalist Essays. One of Emerson’s relatives, Ellen Waldo, became a devotee of Vivekananda and faithfully transcribed the dictated text of his first book, “Raja Yoga,” in 1895.

Vivekananda’s genius was to simplify Vedantic thoughts to essential teachings that the Westerners could easily under-stand. God was not the capricious tyrant in the heavens avowed by Bible-thumpers, but rather a power that resided in the human heart. “Each soul is potentially divine”, he declared. “The goal is to manifest that divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal.” And to close the deal for the fence-sitters, he punched up Vedanta’s embrace of other faiths and their prophets. Christ and Buddha were incarnations of the divine, he said, no less than Krishna and his own teacher, Ramakrishna.

At the Parliament of World Religions, he began his speech by addressing the assembly as “Sisters and Brothers of America”. The idea of calling an auditorium full of strangers as family was unprecedented. The previously sedate crowd of 4,000-plus rose to their feet and wildly cheered the visiting monk, who was as shocked as his audience. “I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world,” he responded, flushed with emotion. “I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.”

His performance at the Chicago Parliament so powerfully impressed and captivated the American people that he was persuaded to stay for over three years and lecture on Vedanta and Hinduism. While lecturing extensively in the U.S., he wrote his famous treatise on Raja Yoga, and laid the foundation for starting several Vedanta Societies in the West. He also gathered financial resources and, with the help of his monastic associates, developed a plan to start a monastic organization — not only to train monks but also to serve the millions of suffering Indians.

Prof. A L Basham (author of “The Wonder that was India”) wrote: “It is very difficult to evaluate his (Vivekananda’s) importance in the scale of world history. It is certainly far greater than any western historian or most Indian historians would have suggested at the time of his death … he will be remembered as one of the main molders of the modern world, . . . and as one of the most significant figures in the whole history of Indian religion.”

The uppermost concern in Vivekananda’s mind was the welfare of the people of India, his motherland. A story is told that, as he was getting ready to depart from London for India, one of his British friends asked him, “Swami-ji how do you like your motherland now after four years’ experience of the luxurious, glorious, and powerful West?” Swami-ji replied: “India I loved before I came away. Now the very dust of India has become holy to me, the very air is now holy to me; India is now the holy land, the place of pilgrimage, the Tirtha!” He returned to India in early 1897 and received an outstanding welcome from his countrymen.

Swami-Ji and the Freedom

Movement of India

Swami-ji inspired the freedom fighters and was often referred to as the warrior prophet. Mahatma Gandhi said that reading Vivekananda had made him love the country ‘hundred fold’. Jawaharlal Nehru saw the Swami ji as one of the great founders of the national movement. Subhash Chandra Bose saw in Vivekananda “the spiritual father of modern nationalist movement”. Rajgopala-chari said that, but for Vivekananda, we would have lost our religion, not have gained our freedom; we owed everything to him”. Rabindranath Tagore said: “If you want to know India, study Vivekananda”. Mystic nationalists, like Maharishi Aurobindo and Subrahmanya Bharathi, too, were greatly inspired by him.

The Poor and Afflicted: God of Vivekananda

Swami-ji was an ideal universal humanist. “The poor, the illiterate, the ignorant, the afflicted”, he wrote, “let these be your God, know that service to these alone is the highest religion”. It was an invocation that, in the context of the times, was unmistakably revolutionary.

Swami Vivekananda was, in fact, probably the first modern egalitarian India has seen. He was India’s renaissance guru. He focused as much on reforming the Hindu society as he stressed on the details of building a new India. As much as he emphasized on the spiritual and religious aspects of this renewal he insisted on physical prowess and scientific temper. He said, “Religion is not for an empty stomach”. The primary reason for his travel to the west was to marshal material resources to help the poor.

The message of Swami Vivekananda remains as relevant today as it was when first enunciated in 1893 and there cannot be a better time to spread his message far and wide than this 150th anniversary year of his birth.

Adapted from: MARG, Vol 9, No 1, Jan-Feb 2013, p. 5-8.

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