The illuminating wisdom of Vivekananda
Celebrating Swamiji’s views on how peace can be brought to society, Government of West Bengal will observe Harmony Week from September 12 to 19
On November 2, 1893, one and a half months after the World Parliament of Religions, Swami Vivekananda wrote his first letter to his friends in India. The letter was addressed to Alasinga Perumal, one of his close friends and disciple in Madras. In the letter, Swamiji wrote about his own experience of the first session of the meeting.
Swamiji wrote, "Of course, my heart was fluttering and my tongue nearly dried up; I was so nervous and could not venture to speak in the morning. Mazoomdar made a nice speech. They were all prepared and came with readymade speeches. I was a fool and had none, but bowed down to Devi Sarasvati and stepped up, and Dr. Barrows introduced me. I made a short speech. I addressed the assembly as "Sisters and Brothers of America", a deafening applause of two minutes followed, and then I proceeded. When it finished, I sat down, almost exhausted with emotion. The next day all the papers announced that my speech was the hit of the day, and I became known to the whole of America."
Famous Vivekananda scholar Marie Louis Burke in her book 'Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries' - His prophetic Mission (part one) comments, "The applause that had punctuated Swamiji's talk thundered out at its close. The people had recognised their hero and taken to their hearts: thenceforth he was the star of the Parliament." (page 84)
The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was held to celebrate 400 years of Christopher Columbus' discovery of America. The primary purpose of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was to exhibit the fruits of man's material progress. There were stalls to show to the world the quantum of material progress made by the Western civilisation. There were also stalls where artisans from Asian countries, including India, exhibited their products. Eugen Sandow (1867- 1925), father of modern bodybuilding also became famous at the World Columbian Exposition by showing his physical fitness and muscle control.
But the fair would not have been complete without a representation of the world's thought, and hence the idea of holding a Parliament of Regions was conceived.
Swamiji had no idea as to when the Parliament would be held and did not know anyone. He met Professor Right who used to teach Greek at the University of Harvard who had given him the letter of introduction which he later lost. The way he got a chance to speak before the August gathering was more thrilling than the reel life.
Swamiji delivered six lectures at the World Parliament of Religions. He addressed the inaugural and the concluding sessions of Parliament which were held on September 11 and 27, respectively. The other four lectures were delivered on September 15, 19, 20, and 26 on the topics: Why we disagree, paper on Hinduism, Religion not the crying need of India; and Buddhism: The fulfillment of Hinduism.
Of the six speeches he had delivered at the Parliament, I will be dealing with three speeches delivered by him on September 11, 19, and 27. The speech delivered by him on Hinduism was the first thesis he read out at the Parliament. These speeches are relevant in today's world as, despite the spread of education and technology, we have failed to control hatred, jealousy, and oppression of the weak. People are becoming intolerant and shamelessly selfish. Interestingly, Swamiji had addressed these issues and given an infallible solution.
In the first speech delivered on the opening day of the Parliament of Religions on September 11, Swamiji had pointed out those who had threatened the world. He said, "Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism have long possessed this beautiful Earth. They have filled up the world with violence, often drenched with human blood, destroyed civilisation, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now." Swamiji was only 30 years old when he addressed the gathering at the Parliament and was the youngest speaker. The speech had a tremendous effect on the audience. Annie Besant, who was among the audience, said it was a pleasant experience. "A striking figure, clad in yellow and orange, shining like the sun of India in the midst of the heavy atmosphere of Chicago. A lion head, piercing eyes, mobile lips, movements swift and abrupt - such was my first impression of Swami Vivekananda, as I met him in one of the rooms set apart for the use of the delegates to the Parliament of Religion.
Swamiji believed that the social maladies which he had pointed at the opening session can be removed by preaching Universal Religion. On September 19, he read out his speech putting forward pointed arguments in favour of his thesis. Swamiji's argument was that only a Universal Religion can save the dark and cruel world. This religion will be devoid of all meanness and will not oppress the followers of other views and faith. Nor will it make any distinction between men and women, and even the saints and the sinners.
He said, "If there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in place or time; which will be infinite like the God, whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ and on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminic or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but a sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognise divinity in every man and women, and whose whole scope will be centred in aiding humanity to realise its own true divine nature." Swamiji was confident that this universal religion will work if properly preached. "Offer such a religion and all nations will follow you. Asoka's council was a council of the Buddhist faith. Akbar's, though more to the purpose, was only a parlour meeting. It was reserved for America to proclaim to all quarters of the globe that the Lord is in every religion."
Swamiji knew that it would be difficult to preach such an open view. But he hoped that in future, this will be the religion of the world when there will be no hatred and jealousy in the name of religion. At the concluding session, which was held on September 27, he emphatically said: "Upon the banner of every religion will soon be written in spite of resistance — Help and not Fight, Assimilation and not Destruction, Harmony and Peace and not Dissension."
One hundred and twenty-five years have passed since the Chicago Parliament of Religions. If we take the Indian context, we see that religious violence is on the rise. There has not been any sincere attempt in the past seven decades of Independence to study Swamiji's views. Dutiful adherence to the six speeches delivered at Chicago can help an individual become a better human being who will be intellectually honest, socially fearless, vigorous in action, and tolerant at heart.
The West Bengal government has decided to observe Harmony Week from September 12 to 19, wherein all school and colleges will hold a discussion on Swamiji's views and how they can bring peace to society.
(The author is Resident Editor of Millennium Post, Kolkata. The views expressed are strictly personal)