Sunday, February 3, 2013

Swami Vivekananda at the Confluence of East and West

Shrinwantu vishwe amritasya putra/arya dhamani divyani tashtu/vedamayetam purusham mahantam/aditya varanam tamasa parastath/tvameva vidithvati, mrityu methi/nanyah pantha vidyathe ayanaya

“Sisters and brothers of America!” – this opening invocation of Swami Vivekananda was followed by thunderous applause. It was 9/11, 1893. Chicago Art Institute was the venue for World Parliament of Religions, celebrating 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World. The young Vedantic went on to greet the youngest nation in the world on behalf of the most ancient order of monks in the world. At a stage, where every speaker was bent upon claiming superior status for his own religion or sect, Vivekananda humbly submitted that no religion was superior and all the streams would meet eventually in the ocean. He struggled very hard to cross half the world and reach Chicago uninvited. But finally when his moment came, Swami Vivekananda became the cynosure of all eyes. This epoch-making speech would soon open the door for Indian philosophy and religion in the West and help to pave the way for revitalization of Hinduism back home.
Swami Vivekananda at World Parliament of Religions

For the next two years Vivekananda gave public lectures and private classes in the USA on Hinduism, Indian philosophy and Yoga. This was West’s first direct introduction to Indian spirituality. Before him only a handful of academicians in the West were acquainted with these subjects. Through Vivekananda, common people for the first time came to realize India’s great spiritual wealth. Till then India was regarded as a backward colony, where – they thought – the only way of salvation was to send more missionaries to spread the message of Christ. On the other hand, a new generation aware of the strains caused by materiality of industrialization and mass urbanization found solace in Vivekananda’s teachings. As Romain Rolland – the great French writer and biographer of both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda – was to write later, the impact of Vivekananda’s lectures was simply electrifying. From the USA, he travelled twice to England in 1895 and 1896. He met some of the great thinkers of his age in London and also attracted a large number of followers. When he travelled back to India, a number of them came along with him – one of them was Margaret Elizabeth Noble, Sister Nivedita, who would stay back to promote women’s education in India.
Belur Math

On May 1, 1897, when Ramakrishna Mission was formally inaugurated at Belur, it had three units – Belur, Ramakrishna Mission of Madras and Vedanta Society New York, which Swamiji founded back in 1894. Very few people know that almost the entire Belur Math was built through the donation of Swamiji’s select western pupils. Even today Ramakrishna Mission, which has its branches in 20 countries outside India, has maximum number of centres outside India in the USA. Unlike in India, where Ramakrishna Mission centres typically combine education and social service with promotion of Vedantic philosophy and classical culture; centres in the US solely focus on philosophy and culture. Today transcendental meditation, Yoga, Indian philosophy, Hindu and Buddhist religions are some of the strongest points in enhancing India’s soft power quotient in the West. Many Indian religious teachers and organizations have since followed the same path to their Western audiences but it was the pioneering mission of Swami Vivekananda to introduce spiritual India in the West.
A part of Chicago's busy Michigan Avenue is named after Swami Vivekananda
It was his reception in the West, which brought the spotlight on him back home. He sailed abroad at a time, when others were busy in deciding the punishment for kalapani for a monk. When he came back triumphant, a subjugated nation found her confidence in his success. In Sri Aurobindo’s language, Vivekananda awakened India spiritually. This awakening came in the context of emerging nationalism and helped young people of India to find their inspiration in their civilization. Like all great Indians of his generations – Rabindranath, Jamshedji Tata – Vivekananda was greatly inspired by the success of Japan. In Japanese success they saw India’s future. On one side, Vivekananda acknowledged India’s past greatness but on the other hand he was equally pained to see ignorance and poverty all around. He was unwavering in his belief that the only way to rescue this country was through education and science and technology – nanyah pantha vidyathe ayanaya. Impressed by this young sadhu, when his co-passenger Jamshedji Tata offered him a large amount for his math, Swamiji asked him to build a scientific institution with that money – this led to the foundation of Indian Institute of Science, IISc Bangalore.

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