Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
The 11th anniversary of the destructive attack on the twin towers in New York, on September 11, 2001, fell on Sunday last, and this time the remembrance was low-key. Nevertheless, it was recent enough that it evoked the painful memories of that day and its immediate aftermath, as was evidenced by the tearful prostrations, at the site, of those who had lost their loved ones on that fateful day. Of individuals, men, women and children who had waited in vain for their near and dear to return home that evening, of those who had never known that when they were leaving for work that morning the fires fanned by a fanatic mind would soon consume them, brutally stealing them from their families.
That streak of violence still stalks, alas, the lands whence it emanated and where it seems to be endemic. In that region, after the predictably violent toppling of dictatorships with loss of countless innocent lives, the painful sight of the daily carnage of innocent civilians – that includes women and children in mass graves – continues to haunt our television screens with a screeching regularity.
But 108 years ago, on the same date, 9/11, and in the same America where the bitter memory of the more recent 9/11 remains alive, a man of peace from the East came to deliver a message of love and tolerance. Only 32 at the time, Swami Vivekananda, tall, hefty and handsome, made his famous statement at the World Parliament of Religions that came to be known, simply, as the Chicago speech. An audience stunned by the appearance of this giant of a man in saffron robe listened in absolute silence, before they rose to give him a rousing applause, and crowded at the edge of the stage to try and touch him, felt by many there to be God incarnate. For those who have never had a chance to read that speech, a short one, it is worth doing so and pondering upon. It started with ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’, and continued:
‘It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; 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.
‘My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honor of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: “As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”
‘The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.” Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and 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.’
As a report in the June 21, 2004 issue of the North West Indiana Times by Bob Kasardat, noted, his words, ‘Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair,’ sounded almost prophetic in the context of 9/11 of 2001. Since then, despite repeated threats by the perpetrator who has since been eliminated, there has fortunately been no attack on American soil.
We are living in Kaliyuga, the fourth in the sequence of cycles of time in the Hindu calendar. It is the age of adharma, when darkness predominates in the human mind and makes it prone to destructive tendencies. Societal norms are ignored, morality is at all time low, respect for each other is absent and those who stand by principles and righteousness – dharma – are short-shrifted. As is said in the Ramayana: ‘The age of Kali has driven men mad, no one respects the sanctity of even one’s sister or daughter. There is no contentment, nor discernment, nor composure. Envy, harsh words, covetousness are rampant, while evenness of mind is absent. The duties and rules of conduct prescribed for society and the stages of life are neglected. Self-control, charity, wisdom and compassion disappear, while stupidity and fraud multiply. Men and women pamper their body, while slanderers are spread all over the world.’
We don’t need any special eyes to confirm these dire realities in the contemporary world, starting with our own country. More than ever, the message of Swami Vivekananda gives hope that we can change course for the better, but we must first learn to listen with opens minds, and act with reason guided by our hearts. Each one of us can make that first step.
* Published in print edition on 14 September 2012