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At the Parliament of Religions
“The dry Advaita must become living - poetic – in everyday life; out of hopelessly intricate mythology must come concrete moral forms; and out of bewildering Yogi-ism must come the most scientific and practical psychology – and all this must be put in a form so that a child may grasp it. That is my life’s work.”
He arrived in Chicago on the 9th of September but had inadvertently lost the address where he was to report the next day. When he could get no help in the train station full of immigrants, he spent the night there sleeping in a “box.” So goes the legend but it could have been a “boxcar,” an empty railway wagon, where he could have slept in. The legend also continues, as legends tend to over-dramatize and romanticize, that the next day a hungry and famished Vivekananda started walking towards the building where the meeting was to be held, knocking on strangers’ doors and begging for food. He had created a stir in the neighborhood and was shunned by alarmed housewives, upon seeing a dark skinned stranger in orange robes and turban at their doors!
It may be true that he had to walk a long distance to find the building but it is unlikely he knocked on doors in search of food. However, he did find help, as offered by another woman, Mrs. Ellen Hale, who gave him shelter, food and later took him to the offices of the Parliament of Religions.
On September 11, 1893 Swami Vivekananda delivered the opening remarks at Parliament of Religions in Chicago. The audience was mostly women, for whom Vivekananda became a champion of their causes. (Many prominent members representing various Indian religions were also present in the audience. Virchand Gandhi representing Jainism, Pratap Mazoomdar from Brahmo Samaj, Nagarkar from Bombay, Chakravarthy representing Theosophical Society along with its founder Anne Besant were all in attendance).
Vivekananda began his address as follows:
“Sisters and Brothers of America,
“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 most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.
“My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honor of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: "As the different streams having their sources in different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."
“The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." 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 than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”
The audience consisted mostly of women, with whom Vivekananda was becoming very popular. He also had expressed his sympathy with the women’s rights issues as well as the plight of widows, especially in India. The newspapers were full of stories about the wise swami from India. (Later he would write to his friends in India as to how nervous he was before he began his address to a gathering of 6 to 7 thousand people. Much is known about his feelings and reaction to his celebrity status in America because he kept in constant touch with his Indian friends through his letters which were open and frank.)
After two weeks on September 27, 1893, at the conclusion of the meeting, Vivekananda delivered this speech of unity of religions.
“The World's Parliament of Religions has become an accomplished fact, and the merciful Father has helped those who labored to bring it into existence, and crowned with success their most unselfish labor.
“My thanks to those noble souls whose large hearts and love of truth first dreamed this wonderful dream and then realized it. My thanks to the shower of liberal sentiments that has overflowed this platform. My thanks to this enlightened audience for their uniform kindness to me and for their appreciation of every thought that tends to smooth the friction of religions. A few jarring notes were heard from time to time in this harmony. My special thanks to them, for they have, by their striking contrast, made general harmony the sweeter.
“Much has been said of the common ground of religious unity. I am not going just now to venture my own theory. But if any one here hopes that this unity will come by the triumph of any one of the religions and the destruction of the others, to him I say, "Brother, yours is an impossible hope." Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid.
“The seed is put in the ground, and earth and air and water are placed around it. Does the seed become the earth, or the air, or the water? No. It becomes a plant. It develops after the law of its own growth, assimilates the air, the earth, and the water, converts them into plant substance, and grows into a plant.
“Similar is the case with religion. The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.
“If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world, it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, 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, and point out to him that 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.’”
American newspapers had always mentioned about Vivekananda’s eyes as captivating with an astonishing effect on his audience. The papers also made tongue in cheek remarks in the editorial about the American women who became his followers - ‘listening to him the women
hardly ever looked below his eyes!.’
Vivekananda stayed in the West (America and Europe) for about three and a half years before returning. He gave many lectures and became widely admired for his persuasive speeches and intellectual discussions. He established the Vedanta Society of New York and continued speaking throughout the country. In the latter half of 1895 he sailed for Europe and lectured in London as well as in Paris.
Following this he briefly returned to New York and spoke at Harvard University, where he was offered the Chair of Eastern Philosophy. He travelled to London again in April of 1896 and spent six weeks in Europe lecturing. Eventually in December of 1896 he set sail to India from Naples, Italy and arrived in Madras in January 1897, after spending a few weeks in Colombo, Ceylon.
Women around him became his sisters and mother figures. In due course Vivekananda did not give much importance to his attending the Parliament of Religions meeting or his speeches there. He was impressed by the way the American women were treated and their importance in the society in stark contrast to the Indian women. In his letters he indicated that his ‘work’ would involve not only fighting the injustice to the poor in India but also restoring the lost individuality and the innate dignity of women.
Vivekananda was in constant touch with his followers in India by writing to them. In those letters one could understand him and the formulations of his ideas and desire for organization. At the same time, he implored them not to stray and keep their faith and follow strict adherence to truth. Love, sincerity and patience were all most important. Life is growth i.e. expansion i.e. love. Love is the only law of life and selfishness is death. He felt that India’s problems should be solved by feeding and educating the poor. The social tyranny of priest-craft is to be removed. More bread, more opportunity for everybody. “Beware of anything that is untrue, stick to truth and we shall succeed, slowly but surely,” he wrote to Alasinga Perumal.
Vivekananda himself had to resort to eating meat while in the West. He was a Kshatriya by birth, but as a swami had not been eating meat while in India. He also enjoyed smoking and he had a weakness for ice cream. He did not consider these as vices that would prevent anyone from seeking the Absolute. He argued that all the Gods of Hindu pantheon were all Kshatriya –Rama, Krishna, Buddha as well as the Thirthankaras and the authors of the Upanishads. “Is God a nervous fool like you that the flow of His River of Mercy would be dammed up by a piece of meat? If such be He, His value is not a pie!” he once wrote. In India, the knowledge that the Swami was eating meat did not go well with some of his devotees but then Vivekananda on hearing this criticism, wrote to Alasinga with humor, “If people in India want me to keep strictly to my Hindu diet, please tell them to send me a cook and money enough to keep him.” His American admirers were stunned that he liked to cook himself with an enthusiasm of a child. After a brilliant lecture, he would rush home to his host’s kitchen and start cooking.
Vivekananda was a great admirer of Jesus of Nazareth. He called him “An Oriental of Orientals” as this man from the East had messages that mimicked the teachings on Bhagavad-Gita. Christ said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” Vivekananda went a step further by saying, “The Kingdom is already yours… It is your right.” Gita taught us most famously, “He who seeth Me everywhere and seeth everything in Me, of him will I never lose hold, nor shall he ever lose hold of Me.” Jesus had proclaimed, “He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” Like the Oriental belief that materialism will not lead to self realization, Jesus had said, “Not this life, but something higher.” It is this higher Truth and purpose in life that Vivekananda was vying for and was teaching.
Vivekananda grasped the gist of Christ’s teaching that it is not the preacher but the message of Truth that is important. Once, two women (one of them was Christine Greenstidel – later Sister Christine) came to see him, traveling hundreds of miles and spoke humbly to him, “We have come to you just as we would go to Jesus if he were still on the earth and ask him to teach us.” He was deeply moved and replied with great humility, “If only I possessed the power of Christ to set you free now!”
His stay abroad had invited criticism not only from Indians especially the Brahmin class (and also from Mazoomdar of Brahmo Samaj), who were not willing to accept a swami crossing the oceans (which was a taboo for a holy man), but also the fact that he ate meat and smoked tobacco. He was also perceived as threat to the American missionaries who were not willing to see Hinduism in a different light than what they had been made to believe (by other missionaries who had spent time in India) all along. When they were unable to shake the faith of women that Vivekananda had stirred, these misogynist missionaries from the nineteenth century blamed the women for believing in the Swami. They even resorted to calumny and slander. There was even a rumor about a servant woman being fired by one of his hosts because of improper behavior by Vivekananda. Finally the owner of the household where Vivekananda was staying (Mrs. John Judson Bagley, wife of former governor of Michigan) had to come and make public statements as to how untrue that was.
Vivekananda was specially hurt by the slanderous attack against him by Pratap Mazoomdar of Brahmo Samaj in India. Mazoomdar had represented Brahmo Samaj in the Parliament of Religions in Chicago but was overshadowed by the sensational success of Vivekananda in America. Jealousy had led to relentless attacks by him on the conduct of Vivekananda in the west. In his letters, Vivekananda expressed grief on the viciousness of the attacks by someone known to him in Calcutta. But he decided not to give credibility to his false accusations by responding to them.
While he was being tormented by the relentless attack of the missionaries who tried to paint him as a fraud without any credentials, he was more anguished by the lack of support from Indian Hindus. He would have liked to see some supporting articles about his work in America printed in some prominent Indian newspaper so that he could claim legitimacy and dispel some of the doubts of skeptics in America who were being influenced by the slander of the missionaries. But, to his chagrin, such articles of support came from India only after special meetings were called by his followers (after much prodding by Vivekananda), in Calcutta, Madras and Bangalore. The American papers published the acclaim accorded to him at the Calcutta meeting and this gave some much needed proof for his skeptics to change their minds.
Nevertheless Vivekananda’s faith was unflappable. He collected a handsome amount of money (which he would bundle into a piece of cloth and give to one of his most trusted hosts, Mrs. Ellen Hale, who had the authority to operate a bank account for him. Many of his lectures to smaller groups were free of charge but when he was invited to speak to a larger audience, he was paid a fee, which he used for his expenses in America and Europe (though he always stayed with people who had opened their homes to him – there were travel expenses, winter clothing needs etc.) Most of the money he saved so that he could use it for his “work” in India.
He had an advice for anyone who wanted to renounce the world. Do your duty first, to family and children, and then renounce the self and not just mere things. It is hypocritical to don the saffron robes and act like you have renounced the world but failed to truly renounce your own self, as you hang on to the ego and selfishness.
'I have planted a seed in this country: it is already a plant, and I expect it to be a tree very soon. I have got a few hundred followers. I shall make several Sannyasins, and then I go to India, leaving the work to them. The more the Christian priests oppose me, the more I am determined to leave a permanent mark on their country.'
It was mostly the women of America who supported Vivekananda whole heartedly. He also encountered much adversity in his travels in America. People who had supported him initially had later turned against him. Sara Chapman Bull, thirteen years his senior, took him under his wings and called him her son and her guru. She was well versed with Hindu scriptures and saw immediately the depth of knowledge the swami had possessed. She donated generously to his various ventures like Vedanta Society in the West and Ramakrishna Mission in India. She gave a contribution of one hundred thousand rupees for the establishment of his Belur Math.
Vivekananda kept in constant touch with his supporters in America via letters. He wrote regularly to Mary Hale of Chicago and Josephine MacLeod and Sara Bull (together they were called 'The Trinity'). They were the backbone of his support in the west. He also wrote frequently to John Henry Wright and Alasingha Perumal, Haridas Viharidas Desai and to his 'Madras Boys.'
Vivekananda was very grateful for the hospitality and love he received from the women. He admired American women whose 'hearts were pure and stainless as snow.' He could not help but compare the women of America with the women of his own country. He admired the American women for their freedom, education and their kindness. Their own priests had tried in vain to convince them that the 'foreign heathen' was dangerous but they stood by him and were his friends. They fed him, arranged his lectures, gave him shelter and defended him against his detractors.
In his letters to his brother monks and friends in India, he implored them to treat women with respect, no matter what social status they belonged to. Distinctions of sex, caste, wealth and learning were gateways to hell. He warned them not to practice discrimination especially in the places of pilgrimage, like Dakshineswar. American women sensed his cause and his leadership in being the champion for women's causes in the male-dominated Indian society.
An anecdote concerning his compassion for downtrodden women is worthy of mention here. Once, while in Cairo, his group lost their way and ended up in a seedy part of town. Here half-clad women were beckoning them from windows and half-open doorways. While the party was hastening to get away from this place, the Swami, who had not noticed any of this suddenly turned toward a group of women, when they noisily made gestures toward him. Standing in front them with his eyes full of tears, he uttered, 'Poor child, she has forgotten who she is and has put divinity in her body.' The women fell silent as one of them came forward and kissed the end of his robe, calling him 'Man of God,' reminiscent of a scene from centuries ago when Jesus encountered a prostitute.
The women who admired him penned many of his biographical works. He had captivated them with his mellow and resonant voices and the sense of divinity his mere presence imparted. Sister Gargi (Marie Louise Burke), Sister Christine (Christine Greenstidel) and Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble), both wrote detailed accounts of his life. Many had travelled to India and helped in setting up the Belur Matt.
Despite all the attention he received, Vivekananda discouraged anyone from worshipping him with adoration. One man, Leon Landsberg (an American Jew of Russian descent) became very close to him in New York when he lived at 54 West 33rd Street. Vivekananda held many lectures here at his sitting room, usually to a group of fifteen or twenty people. Landsberg became a formal brahmacharin disciple and started living in the same apartment. He dedicated his life to living Vedanta. Soon he was so enamored by the Swami that he became possessive that led to disillusionment. Landsberg believed that the Swami should have lived a more frugal lifestyle and not waste time cooking and cleaning dishes. Soon he saw the folly of his own behavior and left, but the incidence did not affect the Swami the least bit.
He regarded his followers in the west as part of his family. They had nurtured and sheltered him and for this he was eternally grateful. When he rented the apartment at 54 West 33rd Street in New York, it was not approved by his well-wishers. They thought it was a dangerous part of town and not suitable for Vivekananda to inhabit. But Vivekananda insisted that it did not matter to him that it was not a posh New York neighborhood. People of good standing from around the country came to see him in his apartment in the 'bad part' of town anyway. It was here that Josephine MacLeod first met Vivekananda and instantly became his friend and ardent supporter. She became a confidante of Vivekananda, with whom he shared his innermost feelings, through his letters to her. Josephine never claimed to be his disciple but just a friend. She called him 'the new Buddha' and 'Our Prophet.'
Vivekananda had visited London twice. The first time was in September of 1895 and again next summer of 1896 on his way back to India. This was a difficult visit for him because now he was in the land of the rulers of his motherland and his countrymen had suffered racism, humiliation and injustice by the British. But during his stay in England he was able to understand the heart of the British much better than he had during his childhood in India. His reputation as an intellectual swami had preceded him. He was well received in England and he was able to capture many minds with his non-sectarian universal message of truth.
Margaret Noble, a young Irish woman in her twenties, met Vivekananda in November 1895. She had been searching for the Truth, and instantly became his fan, after hearing his lecture. In the ensuing years Margaret Noble (later Sister Nivedita) helped Vivekananda spread his message, and later she became one of his ardent supporters. He revealed to her his desire to improve education of women in India. In this venture, Margaret Noble was an asset and of great importance to his 'work.' After his two visits to England, Vivekananda's opinion about the British was, in his own words, 'completely revolutionized.'
Interestingly, his brother Mahendranath (Mohin) had come to England to study law and stayed with the Swami in London at 63 St, George's Road. However, it was no place for a student of law. The house was full of controversial figures, one of whom (Henrietta Muller) became quite insolent towards the Swami. Another occupant of the house, E T Sturdy, who had practiced ascetism in the Himalayas thought swami was not spiritual enough, especially because he did not like seeing him smoking a pipe with good tobacco, after an exhaustive day of lecturing. Henrietta Muller also became so contemptuous towards Mahendra that Vivekananda finally had to send his brother away.
One important characteristic of Vivekananda should be mentioned. He never abandoned those who had rebuked him. This group included E T Sturdy, Henrietta Muller and Kripananda as well as Abhayananda. He kept in touch with all of them and did not fail to show his love to them, whenever he had a chance. He firmly believed that unending love can win over anything and anyone.
Vivekananda had an opportunity to meet Professor Paul Deussen at University of Kiel during a visit to Switzerland. The professor had translated the Upanishads and had done important work on the Vedanta. He also had a chance to meet Professor Friedrich Max Muller at Oxford, who was the German Indologist, fluent in Sanskrit. Muller was collecting material for a book on Sri Ramakrishna (later published in 1899 ' Ramakrishna: His Life and Sayings). The Swami was very impressed with Muller. "The silver headed sage, with a face calm and benign, and forehead smooth as a child's in spite of seventy winters, and every line in that face speaking of a deep-seated mine of spirituality somewhere behind," Swami later wrote about the Professor. He was also impressed with the love Muller had for India.
On taking leave from the Muller, Vivekananda asked him when he planned to return to India. "The face of the aged sage brightened," Swami wrote, "there was almost a tear in his eyes, a gentle nodding of the head, and slowly the words came out: 'I would not return then; you would have to cremate me there.' Further questions seemed an unwarrantable intrusion into the realms wherein are stored the holy secrets of man's heart." That was how the meeting was concluded and that was how the Swami fondly remembered the 'Vedantist of the Vedantists' (Swami's words), Friedrich Max Muller.
Vivekananda shunned titles and accolades. In his eyes everyone was equally divine, with potential to attain individual perfection. If Jesus could be considered as perfect, there was no reason why everyone could not reach a similar status. Millenniums before him another noble soul, Gautama Buddha had come to the same conclusion, based on his understanding of the Vedanta.
In his long afternoon walks with his followers Vivekananda talked simply of God, Jesus and Buddha and found 'books in the running brooks, sermons in stones and good (God) in everything.' He taught them to see God in everything from the blade of grass to man ' even in a diabolical man. At Harvard University he had said, while teaching Vedanta, 'Behind everything the same divinity exists, and out of this comes the basis of morality. Advaita morality can be summed up in one word ' self-abnegation. The personalized self is the cause of all my misery. This individualized self, which makes me different from all other beings, brings hatred and jealousy and misery, struggle and all other evils. And when this idea has been got rid of, all struggle will cease, all misery will vanish.'
In one of his letters to Alasinga Perumal, the Swami wrote with consternation, 'My son, I believe in God and I believe in man. I believe in helping the miserable, I believe in going even to hell to save others. Talk of the Westerners? They have given me food, shelter, friendship, protection even the most orthodox Christians! What do our people do when any of their priests go to India? You do not touch them even, they are MLECHCHHAS. No man, no nation, my son, can hate others and live'. It is good to talk glibly about the Vedanta, but how hard it is to carry out even its least precepts!'
In January 1897 he arrived in India and stayed for a period of two and a half years. In June of 1899, Vivekananda paid a second brief visit to the west. He stayed for another year in America, mostly touring the west coast. During this trip he founded the Vedanta Society of San Francisco. He then went to Paris to attend the International Exposition. There he spoke at the Congress of History of Religions on September 7, 1900. On the way back to India, he toured Constantinople, Turkey, Vienna, Austria, Greece and Cairo, Egypt. In November of 1900 he set sail to India.
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