One hundred and twenty years ago on the 11th September (1893), Swami Vivekananda made his historic speech on the opening session of the Parliament of Religious when he addressed extempore the gathering of five thousand with the words ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’ and the crowd erupted in deafening applause.
Thus began his epoch-making mission to the West as a world teacher who put India in the forefront of spirituality.
He went on to thank the ‘youngest of nations’ in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world, the Vedic order of sannyasins. Swamiji introduced Hinduism as “the Mother of Religions, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. He quoted the Bhagavad Gita. ‘Whosoever comes to me through whatsoever form I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.’ He strongly asserted, “sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendant fanaticism have possessed long this beautiful earth… and sent whole nations into despair. I fervently, believe that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of the representatives of the different religions of the earth in this parliament assembled, is the deathknell to all fanaticism (applause), that it is the death-knell to all persecution with the Sword or the pen and to all uncharitable feelings between brethren wending their way to the same goal, but through different ways. The West has tried to conquer external nature and the East has tried to conquer internal nature. Now East and West must work hand in hand for the good of each other …then there will be neither East nor West but one humanity.” He advocated a Universal religion in which all systems and faiths will find acceptance. On Swamiji’s famous Paper on Hinduism, Sister Nivedita had written that when he began to speak it was of the religious ideas of the Hindus; but when he ended ‘Hinduism had been created’. Swamiji had in his paper proclaimed the positive Vedantic message in a ringing voice, opposing the Western religious belief that men are sinners who have to pray for salvation, ‘Yea the Hindu refuses to call you Sinners. Ye are the children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth-Sinners? It is a sin to call man so, it is a standing libel on human nature. Come up o lions! and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are soul, immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal.’ Swamiji had proclaimed that each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest the Divinity within by controlling nature external and internal… He told his Western audiences that the divine being is inherent in Man whose divinity was covered with ignorance, lust, greed and ego and it was to be man’s efforts to become the being that he was (Being and Becoming). Swamiji very warmly acclaimed the people of America in his closing words ‘Hail Columbia! Motherland of liberty! It has been given to thee to march at the vanguard of civilization with a flag of harmony’. Prof John Henry to right of Harvard University recommended Swamiji to the Organising Committee of the Parliament as ‘one more learned then all the professors of Harvard University put together’ and he had told Swamiji that to ask for his credentials was like asking the Sun whether it had the right to shine.
Later Swamiji would graciously decline the offer of the Chair in Eastern Philosophy at Harvard. Swamiji delivered his address at the Final Session charged with strong emotion and catholicity reiterating his opening speech thus…’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…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, inspite of resistance: “Help and not Fight”, “Assimilation and not destruction”. Harmony and Peace and not Dissension. Thus the wondering monk who came to be known as the ‘cyclonic Monk’, began his triumphant mission to the West. As Eleanor Stark wrote in her book (The Gift Unopened) Columbus discovered the soil of America Vivekananda discovered the soul of America.
He had with great sadness remarked to his disciple Sarat that he felt he was too small to tackle the enormous problems of decline in spirituality and starvation in India with which his Guru and entrusted him.
But Swamiji, the patriot that he was wept for the poverty stricken and miserable in India. He realized and said that it was an insult to speak of religion to one with an empty stomach. He strongly followed his mentor Sri Ramakrishna’s teaching of serving the living beings as being Shiva.
Thus Swamiji told audiences in America that India had enough of religion and does not need Christian missionaries, it was for succour, technology and organization that he had gone to the West. While the East could provide spirituality and philosophy to the West, the West could provide means to material well-being to the East. One might recall his clarion call to the Youth of India: ‘Arise, Awake and Stop not till the goal is reached’.
The writer is an Advocate