The Relevance of Swami Vivekananda Today

“If we wish our lives to be enriched and enlightened, to be raised towards a level of deep understanding and intense happiness that will then guide our actions in this mundane world, and help to ennoble it and we too in the process, then there is no better guide towards this glorious vision than the avant-gardiste teachings of Swami Vivekananda…”

On the occasion of the seminal address made by Swami Vivekananda at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, USA, on 11 September 1893, and as part of the year-long commemoration of his 150th birthday (he was born on 12 January 1863), it is important for us to remember the essential messages that he continually emphasised throughout his life, and which are of perennial relevance for mankind. And particularly, I would think, for his motherland India, which is mired in the throes of non-stop scams, weakened by a doddery leadership, and torn by a series of gang-rapes associated with unimaginable bestiality and murderous violence. In order to appreciate fully the specific pertinence of his messages to the disturbed times in which we are living, which are troubled by all kinds of religious, sectarian and internecine strife, it would be useful to highlight some points about the life of a trailblazer who was no less than a spiritual torchbearer for mankind.

It was a short life, lasting only 39 years, from 4 July 1863 to 4 December 1902. Although he was born in an aristocratic family of Bengal, they became impoverished with the death of his father, an attorney, in 1884. Nevertheless, Narendranath Datta, as he was then known, managed to complete his university education. He was a brilliant student, graduating first class from the Presidency College, Calcutta. He was a voracious reader, and was interested in a wide range of subjects which included western logic and philosophy, European history, religion, social science, art, and literature. He also had a sound grounding in science, and was familiar with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. He studied thoroughly the Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas, and also learnt Sanskrit in depth. Further, he was trained in Indian classical music, was a good singer and regularly participated in various forms of physical exercises, sports, and organisational activities.

Early on he showed spiritual inclination, which increased when he came in contact with the one who would become his Master, Sri Ramakrishna, who led him further into deep meditation practices which he in turn shared with and transmitted to his own followers, both Indian and Western. He travelled extensively in India, often on foot, visiting centres of learning, acquainting himself with the diverse religious traditions and different patterns of social life, living mainly on bhiksha (alms). He saw for himself the suffering and poverty of the masses as he made acquaintance with his fellow countrymen from all walks of life and religions, and stayed and interacted with them — scholars, dewans, rajas, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, pariahs (low caste workers) and government officials.

He also made two journeys to the West, in America and Europe, in 1894-1897 and 1899-1900, creating a tremendous impact at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago on 19 September 1893 with his ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’ speech. He subsequently delivered hundreds of lectures and talks, conducted meditation sessions, and founded Vedanta Societies in New York and California, besides the Ramakrishna Mission which he set up in 1897 at Belur Math near Calcutta. However, towards the later years, he suffered from various ailments which at times weakened him considerably. In spite of this, though, he did not let down his arms as it were, persevering courageously till the very last with all his activities. He wrote extensively, and composed several poems too. He was highly appreciated as a gifted orator in English and Bengali, and he also had a touch of humour which often comes through in his writings and speeches.

It is against this rich, vast, learned, inspired and deep spiritual background and experience that we must try to understand the relevance of Swami Vivekananda today.

*       Undoubtedly, his most fundamental message is that of tolerance. It became particularly salient after the 9/11 attack on the twin towers of New York at the beginning of this century, in the year 2001. In fact, all the major world leaders, traumatised and shaken by the event, have since not stopped advocating the need for tolerance as a cardinal virtue amongst all peoples of the world if we want to have peace on earth. This is how Swami Vivekananda articulated it in his maiden speech at the World Parliament of Religions: ‘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’ as he quoted the Bhagavad Gita in support, ‘Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.’

*       As a corollary to this, he accepted that all religions had a core of truth. Thus, he said, ‘Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy – by one, or more, or all of these, and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.’

*       It is this eternal message of Hinduism, more correctly known as Vedanta, that he constantly and boldly stressed and taught throughout his life, starting at the World Parliament of Religions. He was thus the first Hindu monk who gave high visibility, appreciation and understanding of Hinduism in the West.

*       He believed that one must not only preach, but put into practice what one teaches. For this organization is needed, to train others who will take on the mantle and carry the message forward. Thus he worked tirelessly to set up the Vedanta Societies and the Ramakrishna Mission.

*       Being a very pragmatic person, he believed that success was an outcome of focused thought and action. As a result, he had clear ideas about the form that organizations should take and how they should be managed, with accountability and transparency especially as regards accounts and representation. He himself wrote down the rules of governance of the Ramakrishna Math.

*       By the same token, he advocated a rational approach to issues and problems whether of religious or lay nature. Everything had to be tested and verified by the use of reason, and taking into account the advances in human knowledge and in science in particular, as well as factoring in human experience.

*        Eventually though, one had to go beyond reason and beyond categories to enter into the spiritual realm which saw only Unity as underlying universal existence.

*      It is that Unity, that Oneness of All, that had to be the foundation and inspiration of one’s actions in the concrete, material world.

*       This was the basis for his strong advocacy about social issues: uplift of the population, getting rid of the rigidities of the caste system, promotion of science, industrialisation of the country, addressing the widespread poverty of the masses. His teachings focused on their development, and he was a strong proponent of education, especially women’s education as being the key to such development and uplift. He was clear in his mind that it was crucial to bring the noblest ideas to the doorstep of even the poorest and the meanest. He maintained that addressing poverty was a prerequisite for the national awakening of India.

*      It was in this spirit that he sent volunteers to engage in famine relief work and other disasters, such as epidemics of plague and cholera when these truck several areas in India in the closing years of the 19th century, even as he himself was not always in the best of health.

These are but a few points which show that Swami Vivekananda was a multifaceted person who not only had a profound understanding of human nature and its spiritual root, but was convinced and demonstrated that the foundation of peace and harmony amongst the people, starting with his own Motherland, can only be of that spiritual nature that is revealed by the Vedanta.

If we wish our lives to be enriched and enlightened, to be raised towards a level of deep understanding and intense happiness that will then guide our actions in this mundane world, and help to ennoble it and we too in the process, then there is no better guide towards this glorious vision than the avant-gardiste teachings of Swami Vivekananda.

* Published in print edition on 14 September 2013

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