120 years on, Swami Vivekananda’s fiery speech at the Parliament of Religions is still fresh in memory.
This month marks the 120th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s participation in the Parliament of Religions at Chicago.
It is appropriate to celebrate this great event through the month for a simple reason. While it is generally well-known that young Vivekananda had to sleep on a sidewalk in Chicago before being discovered and given a place to stay, what is less known is that his first lecture there on September 11, 1893, catapulted him to such a great stature that the organisers had to invite him to address the gathering every day during that fortnight!
A participant of that conference said, “When the audience was bored with the tedious eloquence of some other speakers and became restive, the president of the conference found that the best means to get them into order was to announce that Vivekananda would be the next speaker again!”
Among those present at that conference, Dr. Annie Besant later commented, “Off the platform, his figure was instinct with pride of country, pride of race – the representative of the oldest of living religions… India was not to be shamed before the hurrying arrogant West by this her envoy and her son. He brought her message, he spoke in her name, and the herald remembered the dignity of the royal land whence he came. Purposeful, virile, strong, he stood out, a man among men, able to hold his own. On the platform, another side came out. The dignity and the inborn sense of worth and power still were there, but all was subdued to the exquisite beauty of the spiritual message which he had brought, to the sublimity of that matchless truth of the East which is the heart and life of India…The huge multitude hung upon his words, not a syllable must be lost, not a cadence missed!”
An agnostic-turned-monk, Swami Vivekananda accomplished in a life span of 39 years what is probably not possible for anyone living even for a couple of centuries. His contribution was not obscurantist revival but rejuvenating renaissance of Hinduism and the Indian ethos. His deep sense of nationalism had a profound impact on the Freedom Struggle. His worldview and success in the Western world revived India’s self esteem in the context of the depressed mood of enslavement. Suddenly, here was a new Indian spiritual leader known to the entire literate world.
His admirers included the likes of Leo Tolstoy and Max Mueller. Swamiji’s personality combined the qualities of the Buddha, Mahavir, Adi Sankara, Ramanuja, and Chaitanya in a manner of syncretism. He was a great musician even as a teenager, attracting hundreds of people to his singing, a tradition which he continued all his life.
Even his religious ideas were radical. He once declared, “I do not know the 30 crore deities of our pantheon. But I know the millions of my suffering fellowmen who are my gods to be served.” He epitomised this sentiment on the lines “Nara Seva is Narayana Seva” (Service to Man is Service to God). He did not believe in salvation by constantly running away from the world to meditate in caves; he believed that such enlightenment was only a means to serve his fellowmen. So he created an Order of Monks at the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, who are dedicated to the uplift of the downtrodden through education, health care and such other activities. He laid the foundation for communal and religious harmony, expanding on the principle his Guru had demonstrated.
The Tamil connection
How can anyone belonging to Tamil Nadu forget the unique relationship this part of the country had with a young Bengali saint who became the world-renowned Swami Vivekananda? It is well known that as a parivrajakacharya (wandering monk), Vivekananda reached Kanyakumari, swam across the sea, reached a rock and sat there in meditation for a few days. Although he had heard that a World Parliament of Religions was to take place in Chicago and a few people in Western India had suggested that he should participate, he could not make up his mind for long.
It was during his visit to Tamil Nadu that he decided to accept the challenge and proceed to America. Even then, he was debating with himself on whether he was genuinely interested in representing an ancient tradition of spirituality or was perhaps giving room to his ego to project himself. The enthusiasm of his disciples in Tamil Nadu led by Alasingar of Tiruvallikeni in Chennai helped him make up his mind.
The decision was clinched when a letter of blessings came from Sri Sarada Mata in Kolkata urging him to proceed to Chicago. The funds collected for his trip by his Tamil devotees became the nucleus which was strengthened by the generosity of the Maharaja of Ketri.
Half a century after the Chicago lecture, Rajaji said in simple words, “Swami Vivekananda saved Hinduism and saved India. But for him we would have lost our religion and would not have gained our freedom. We therefore owe everything to Swami Vivekananda. May his faith, his courage and his wisdom ever inspire us so that we may keep safe the treasure we have received from him!”
(Dr. S. Krishnaswamy is a documentary and television film maker and founder of the recently launched Tamil/English Heritage Channel, KRISHNA-TV.)