One hundred and fifty years ago this day, Swami Vivekananda was born (12 January 1863). He breathed his last on 4 July 1902 at the age of 39. By then he had ignited a spiritual fire across the world. That fire still burns. Swamiji’s ultimate message was: each soul is potentially divine, and religion is the manifestation of divinity already in man. This divinity is manifested when one treats others with love and compassion.

Unfortunately, in the name of religion, some of those claiming to be followers of Swamiji are playing havoc with his teachings. Social strife, sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism are afflicting our society. One needs to recall just a few lines from Swamiji’s Chicago address, delivered in the World Parliament of Religions on 11 September 1893: “I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and refugees of all religions.” Mark the words “all religions”. This is India’s culture. Is this being protected by politicians whose sole aim is either to acquire/retain power or to regain lost power by only dividing people? But they shall not succeed as India’s youth is rising to the occasion. A time has come in India to enforce Swami Vivekananda’s teachings.

In fact, in his Chicago address, Swamiji had specifically said: “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.” These ringing words of wisdom are so relevant today. It is also very important to remember that Swamiji had uttered these prophetic words while in a sense introducing Hinduism to the world. Hinduism, Swamiji had said, is the mother of all religions. Is true Hinduism being followed in India today? Or are we distorting Swamiji’s preachings to suit our narrow sectarian ends?

In fact, the essence of Hinduism and that of practical Vedanta of emitting love, compassion and fostering camaraderie is the essence of every religion in the world. 2600 years ago Gautam Buddha had enlightened humanity with these very ideals. Emperor Ashoka (304 to 233 BC) had embraced Buddhism and gave philanthropic administration. The Bible taught us that if you can’t love your brother whom you have seen, how can you love God whom you have not seen? Prophet Mohammed (570 to 632 AD) said the purpose of existence is to worship God, who is eternal, incomparable and absolute. Even Guru Nanak (1469 to 1539 AD) preached that God is not separate from the individual. He said that one must always share in need and remain honest. Therefore, I see no conflict whatsoever among Hinduism, Budhhism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism or any religion in the world.

Swamiji aptly said: “As different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to thee”.

Swamiji implored people to cultivate faith in themselves for faith in God. He said that as soon as a man loses faith in himself, death comes. So, “believe first in yourself and then in God”, said Swamiji. He added that the history of the world is the history of a few men who had faith in themselves. That faith calls out to inner divinity. One can do anything, but one fails only when he does not strive sufficiently to manifest that infinite power. The greatest religion is to be true to your own nature. “Have faith in yourself”, and divinity is bound to manifest.

Swamiji did not think any man is superior to another. He said only by breaking down the barriers between man and man can one usher in the kingdom of heaven on earth. Swamiji said “after so much of tapasya, austerity I have known that the highest truth is this: He is present in all beings. These are all the manifested forms of Him. There is no other God to seek for. He alone is worshipping God who serves all beings.”
Swamiji also said liberty is the first condition of growth. Just as a man must have liberty to think and speak, so he must have liberty in food, dress and marriage and in every other thing, so long as he does not injure others. He said none deserves liberty who is not ready to give liberty. Slaves want power to make slaves. How apt Swamiji’s teachings are in today’s world when these very ideals are being breached brazenly by those who claim to be his followers. Today some followers of Swamiji are prescribing what to eat, what dress to wear, and whom to marry. A fear psychosis is being instilled in the name of religion and social norms. Ironically, Swamiji had preached: “Fear is the greatest sin my religion teaches”.

As we remember the saint on his 155th birthday, let us remember his teachings. Man is the highest being in creation because he has the freedom to think. And man can control nature – external and internal- by doing work, worship, psychic control or philosophy. This is the whole of religion. The divinity of soul, oneness of existence, non duality of Godhead and harmony of religions were recurring themes of Swamiji’s message. Ultimately, he said what India needed was not religion, but bread. Let us dedicate ourselves today to spread love, eschew hatred, and provide bread to the hungry.