“I have a message to the West as Buddha had a message to the East. As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which man takes, through different tendencies, various though they may appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee. Whosoever comes to me, through whatsoever form, I reach him, all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to Me” ~ Swami Vivekananda
He thus quoted two Sanskrit verses as he introduced the Vedanta in the course of his celebrated address at the opening session of the World Parliament of Religions on 11 September 1893. He began with the words “Sisters and Brothers of America” which aroused a thunderous applause from the audience. Swamiji professed the universality of religious truths, spirituality and ethics and the sameness of all religious realisations.
The truth of all religions was one, and that they were all paths leading to the self-same goal, the selfsame God. In a spirited rebuke to Rev Joseph Look’s talk on Comparative Religion, highlighting the sin of man and his damnation, Vivekananda proclaimed, “Ye divinities on earth ~ Sinners? It is a sin to call a man so. It is a standing libel on human nature. You are the children of immortal bliss.” In his celebrated paper “Hinduism as Religion”, presented on September 19, he emphasised that the whole object was, by constant struggle, to become perfect, to become divine, to reach God and see God, even as the Father in Heaven is perfect.
That constitutes the religion of the Hindus ~ to become divine by realising the Divine. He expounded the Vedanta philosophy which harmonises all religious ideals and all forms of worship which were different presentations of Truth and different paths to its realisation ~ the perception of Oneness. Man is potentially divine, the Atma (Soul) in man was the same God in all beings, of Divinity manifest everywhere.
Swamiji said that in this process of realisation, the Hindu does not believe in redemption or salvation but in achieving Freedom (Moksha) by unity or merging of the soul with Brahma, by overcoming the illusions and paradoxes of worldliness and of the shackles of the ego (the little personal self), the senses and of matter, and thus by Being and Becoming Divinity (by realisation), since man was potentially Divine, and that the Soul was eternally pure. In his address at the closing session of the Parliament, Swamiji quoted from the Bhagavad Gita ~ “I am in every religion like the thread that passes through a string of pearls”. If anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart”. Swamiji’s trenchant criticism of the Christian missionaries in India and South-east Asia, mainly engaged in conversion of the so-called poor heathens and spreading falsehoods of uncivilised Pagan and the heathen poor and miserable multitudes in India, led to a sharp fall in the public donations to the cause of the missionaries. Vivekananda was called the “cyclonic monk”. The fame and glory that he earned in Chicago was followed up with his mission to spread the message of the Vedanta.
Along with the divinely ordained mission of spreading his Master’s message of Vedanta and a universal acceptance of all religions, his patriotism was touching to the West. Swamiji’s main purpose was to seek the help of the West by way of funds, and towards building up an organisation for tackling the problems of poverty and misery. His patriotism was touching. But he soon gave up his aim to raise funds by his lectures. He had written to his brother that whenever the seeds of his Master’s power will fall, “it will fructify be it today or in a hundred years”. He followed up his Chicago lecture with visits to Minneapolis and Detroit. He often gave 12 or 15 lectures a day, expounding the underlying unity of the variety of different creeds. He spoke variously on the Divinity of Man. Harmony of Religions, the ideal of a universal religion, the Upanishads, Hinduism, reincarnation. Swamiji decried the spread of religion by the use of the sword.
He was invited to speak to the graduates of Harvard University who immensely appreciated his lectures. Vivekananda helped to resolve some of their problems they faced in the study of philosophy. He was offered the Chair in Eastern Philosophy at Harvard, an offer that he declined as he was a monk and could not have any attachment or bondage.
Swamiji upheld the teachings of the eight-fold noble path of Buddha, who he said had brought about social reformation in terms of the caste system and rituals which had brought about the decline of spirituality in Hinduism. At the end of 1894 Swamiji proclaimed, “I have a message to the West as Buddha had a message to the East.”
The materialistic people of America enthusiastically welcomed and responded to Swamiji’s teachings of Vedanta when he started the Vedanta Centre in New York, followed by other centres. His lectures in the US were attended by hundreds of thousands. In America he held a “Retreat” at the Thousand Islands Park near the St Lawrence river. He described it as his finest hour. He had brought together a band of twelve or thirteen devotees who were to be the vanguard for the spread of the message of the Vedanta. These pupils or devotees preferred Vishistaadvaita, i.e. the individual’s Soul was a spark of Brahma.
Swamiji admired American women who he said preserved culture and spirituality, while men were chasing money and wealth. His close supporters included Mrs J J Bagley and her daughters, Mrs Ole Bull, Miss Josephine Macleod apart from the Lyon and Laggett couples. He went across England in August 1895 and again in 1896. He soon acquired fame and admiration as he proclaimed the message of the Vedanta, especially in course of his lectures on Practical Vedanta.
Among his many admirers, there were several who played very important roles to spread his teachings in the West as well as in India. They were, pre-eminently Margaret Noble (later known as Sister Nivedita), Mrs Henrietta Muller, who donated a very major sum towards the cost of the land on which Belur Math now stands, Captain and Mrs Sevier who came to India and later established the Mayawati Ashrama in Uttarakhand, ET Sturdy and JJ Goodwin who was like Swamiji’s Bosewell until his untimely death at Ootacamend. Swami Vivekananda had written to his brother monks in India that “wherever the seeds (of the master’s teachings) will fall there it will fructify be it today or in a hundred years”. Mrs Eleanov Stark in her book, The Gift Unopened, has so elegantly written that “Christopher Columbus discovered the soil of America, but Vivekananda discovered its Soul”.
( The writer is Advocate, High Court, Calcutta.)