Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
Tomorrow is the 150th birth anniversary of one of the greatest sons of India, Swami Vivekananda. He was born on January 12, 1863, in a middle-class Bengali family of Kolkata. He was called Narendranath Dutta before sainthood, and grew up to be a youth of great charm and intelligence, eventually becoming one of the most admired spiritual leaders of India.
Unfortunately he left us at the early age of 39 years, on July 4, 1902, but in this short lifespan he accomplished the immense feat of giving high visibility, appreciation and understanding of Hinduism in the West.
For the first time a Hindu monk dressed in saffron robe had made public appearances in America, and this is where the first impact he created led to his unplanned stay of nearly three years on that continent, to deliver talks and lectures both to lay audiences, in public as well in private gatherings, and to academia: he was invited to speak on Vedanta at Harvard University, for example.
He sailed to America in May 1893, to only attend the first Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, and was not invited there as a speaker. But the uninvited young monk was eventually made to address this august assembly on September 19, 1893: he electrified the audience with a speech that made him world famous overnight. He began his speech, which lasted about 7 minutes, with the words, “Sisters and Brothers of America,’ continuing with ‘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 millions and millions of Hindu people …”
After he had finished, the thousands of delegates assembled there rose as one to give him a thunderous applause that lasted several minutes, and later the participants crowded the front of the stage by the hundreds to take a closer look at and reach out to him. He himself had not expected such an overwhelming response.
He had spiritual leanings even when he was a young student at school, and early on he began to meditate daily. He became an avid scholar of Western and Hindu philosophy, being thirsty for the mystery of Creation and the law of Nature. He found his guru in Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, who was a devotee of Ma Kali, and he spent his life spreading the central message of his guru. In 1897 he founded the Ramakrishna Mission with a small band of his disciples, to continue the work of the Master who had passed away in 1886. He toured across India to know his country and people, and saw for himself the difficulties and vicissitudes being endured by the masses in India.
He was convinced that their uplift could only come through Indian leaders and the people of India being rooted in and inspired by the precepts and values found in the Vedas, articulated as the Vedanta. But it wasn’t mere abstract or abstruse explanations that he wanted to propagate, although such understanding was also vital. This had to be combined with social work amongst the masses, for which not only intellectual prowess but also physical strength was required. In his own words: ‘What I want is muscles of iron and nerves of steel, inside which dwells a mind of the same material as that of which the thunderbolt is made.’
This should not surprise because besides being a brilliant student, he was an accomplished sportsman, excelling in several sports and being an excellent swimmer. He was hefty and handsome, and a powerful orator as well. And he practised what he preached: ‘Be true, be honest, be pure. Do not figure out big plans at first, but begin slowly, feel your ground, and proceed up and up….Be positive, do not criticise others. Give your message, teach what you have to teach, and there stop. The Lord knows the rest.’
One of his great admirers has been Romain Rolland, who has written a biography of him entitled ‘The life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel.’ ‘His words,’ wrote Romain Rolland, ‘are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven, stirring rhythms like the march of Handel choruses. I cannot touch these sayings of his…without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock. And what shocks…must have been produced when in burning words they issued from the lips of the hero!’
But he had several followers from the West in his lifetime, one of the most well known being Margaret Noble who was from Ireland. She followed him to India, became Sister Nivedita, and plunged into the Indian movement for greater autonomy that had begun at the turn of the 19th century. She continued his work unabated, and was a great devotee of Sarada Devi, the consort of Shri Ramakrishna who outlived the Master.
Another woman who made a study of Vivekananda her life’s mission was the American Mrs Mary Louise Burke – after all, Swami Vivekananda began his work in the West in America, and was an ardent admirer of the American women whom he had come to know and who welcomed him with open arms in their homes: he addressed all of them as ‘Mother’ for, as was the case with his guru the Paramhansa Ramakrishna, he saw in also of them a reflection of Ma Durga. As he wrote, ‘I came to this country …without name, fame, wealth…friendless, helpless…and American women befriended me, gave me shelter and food, took me to their homes and treated me as their own son, their own brother… I admire their broad and liberal minds.’
Sister Gargi (1911–2004) born Marie Louise Burke was an eminent researcher on Swami Vivekananda, known for her six-volume work, Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries. She was initiated into the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda movement in 1948 by Swami Ashokananda, the then abbot of the Vedanta Society of Northern California in San Francisco. She took her first vows in India from the Ramakrishna Order in 1974 and was given the monastic name ‘Gargi’ after the Vedic scholar in recognition of her brilliant accomplishments as researcher and writer. In 1983, the first Vivekananda Award was given by the Ramakrishna Mission for her research on Vivekananda. Later on, she took her final vows of sanyasa and was given the name Pravrajika Prajnaprana.
Her works and many others continue to narrate the glory of this enlightened soul who walked this earth, and ‘walked the talk’ – something we all ought to be doing so that his clarion call for the betterment of humankind translates into a concrete reality. For, as Swami Vivekananda wrote to Sister Nivedita, ‘My ideal … is to preach unto mankind their divinity, and how to make it manifest in every movement of life.’
* Published in print edition on 12 January 2013