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Ahead of his times

Exploring the continuing relevance and wisdom of Swami Vivekananda’s iconic lectures which he delivered at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 127 years ago

Ahead of his times
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Swami Vivekananda accidentally met two of his brother monks at Abu Road railway station on the eve of his departure for the West from Mumbai in 1893. While explaining to them the purpose of his visit to the United States, Swamiji said, "I have now travelled all over India. But alas it was agony to me, my brothers, to see with my own eyes the terrible poverty and misery of the masses and I could not restrain my tears! It is now my firm conviction that it is futile to preach religion amongst them without first trying to remove their poverty and their sufferings. It is for this reason — to find more means for the salvation of the poor of India, that I am now going to America." On another occasion, in a letter to his friend in Chennai he wrote, "I do not believe in that religion of god who cannot give me bread here while giving me eternal bliss in heaven."

There was another reason for his going to the West. While travelling extensively in India, he found that the poor lacked education, were oppressed and tortured by their own countrymen as well as the British. What passed off for civilization in India at that time in his opinion was nothing but "base imitation of foreign nations". So, going to the West was absolutely necessary to tell the educated and wealthy Indians as well as the Western audience about the rich cultural heritage of this ancient country.

Swamiji met Jamsetji N Tata in Japan and the duo left for the United States together. During the voyage, Swami told Tata that merely importing steel from abroad would not help India. He should also set up an institution where the boys and girls could be given proper education. Tata remembered his conversation with the young unknown monk and in 1898 he wrote a letter to Swamiji expressing his willingness to set up an educational institution where along with basic science, metaphysics, ethics and psychology would be taught. He requested Swamiji to draft a pamphlet whose expenditure he would bear joyfully. Swamiji and Sister Nivedita were the key persons behind setting up of the Indian Institute of Science.

At the World Parliament of Religions which was held at Chicago from September 11 to 27, 1883, Swamiji delivered six lectures on September 11, 15, 19, 20, 26 and 27.

On September 20, he delivered a lecture on 'Religion not the crying need of India'. He was the first Indian ever to take up this issue before a western audience as the majority of the educated Indians believed that Western culture and education had come as a great blessing for India. It is a tragedy that even after 137 years of Chicago conference, this speech is neither discussed nor studied as it clearly stated his purpose of visiting the West. Swamiji said, "In India during the terrible famines, thousands died from hunger, yet you Christians did nothing. You erect churches all through India, but the crying evil in the east is not religion — they have enough but it is the bread that the suffering millions of burning India cry out for with parched throats. They ask us for bread and we give them stones. It is an insult to a starving man to teach him metaphysics. I came here to seek aid for my impoverished people and I fully realised how difficult it is to get help for heathens from Christians in a Christian land." There was pin-drop silence when Swamiji was delivering his address. After he stopped, many said how foolish it was to send missionaries to his country when it produced a person like him. They stopped giving money to the Christian priests who became terribly angry and began to spread orchestrated canards against Vivekananda.

Swamiji said, "Just as Buddha had a message to the East, I have a message to the West." This message was that of a universal religion where human beings are given the highest position above all the places of worship.

"Unity in variety is the plan of nature, and the Hindus have recognised it," he said while presenting the paper on Hinduism on September 19. He went on saying, "superstition is a great enemy of man, but bigotry is worse." He maintained that to gain "the infinite universal individuality, this miserable little prison individuality must go."

Swamiji presented his concept of universal religion. He was confident that this religion will work well in future. "Offer such a religion and all nations will follow you."

While addressing the gathering at the inaugural session of the Parliament of Religions on September 11, Swamiji had pointed out that the world's biggest enemies were "sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendant fanaticism." These three have hit the world over and over again, leading to bloodshed, killing people resulting in their untold misery. He said, "had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now."

He firmly believed that the universal religion can help reduce the baser qualities and narrowness in human beings.

For him "It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognise the divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force will be centred in aiding humanity to realise its own true divine nature." Unlike most of the practised religions, it will not discriminate between men and women.

When Swamiji was putting forward his thesis, many people who were against giving freedom to women as they believed that "a dog, a wife and a walnut tree — the more you beat them better they be" became furious and said he was saying all these to "win the sympathy and appreciation of women."

Swamiji was head and shoulders above many of the intellectuals of his time who could not understand what he was talking about. Those belonging to the reformist school, who looked upon themselves as the vanguards of progress in the country, often called him reactionary. He was severely criticised for crossing the sea and people had questioned his food habits. Many people could not tolerate him for writing 'Swami' before his name as he was not a Brahmin.

But despite all criticisms, Swamiji said, "east or west, home is best" and sacrificed his life for India at the age of 39 years only.

Only posterity can judge whether his Chicago addresses have become irrelevant. But at the moment it appears that he was the most practical and large-hearted person with the finest brain to accept all sorts of people with an open mind.

The writer is the Resident Editor of Millennium Post, Kolkata. Views expressed are personal

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