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Crossing the Ocean & Changing the World

By Paul Chaffee

The story line is utterly improbable – an unknown, uninvited 30-year-old monk from a small monastic community in India provides the spark which lights the modern interfaith movement at a world fair in Chicago 118 years ago. All true, though, and it gets stranger.

Swami Vivekananda had heard that a World’s Parliament of Religions was to be held in Chicago, and his followers raised funds for the ship to Vancouver and rail passage to Chicago. On arriving, he discovered he was more than a month early. Delegate registration had already closed, and without supporting “credentials,” he could not address the assembly.

Hearing his plight, a wealthy woman he’d befriended on the train from Vancouver invited him to stay at her home in Boston. She also introduced him to members of the Harvard faculty, including one four-hour conversation with J. H. Wright, professor of Greek. On hearing that Vivekananda had no “credentials,” Wright retorted, “To ask you, Swami, for your credentials, is like asking the sun to state its right to shine.” Letters were sent, and an invitation was forthcoming.

Misfortune revisited his second arrival in Chicago; he lost the address where he was meant to go. He slept that night in a railway freight yard and wandered the next morning, finally sitting down by the side of a road. A woman from across the street approached him, asked if he were a delegate to the Parliament of Religions, served him breakfast, and took him to the Parliament’s headquarters. She and her husband became his lifelong friends.

The 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions

Swami Vivekananda, in the middle, seated with speakers at the 1893 World’s Parliament of the World’s Religions.

Swami Vivekananda, in the middle, seated with speakers at the 1893 World’s Parliament of the World’s Religions.

For the first time in modern history, the 1893 Parliament gathered leaders from most of the world’s large, established religions for a 16-day public forum on the world’s religions. The landmark achievement frequently is identified as the start of the interfaith movement. On opening day, September 11, 1893, Swami Vivekananda was one of the last speakers invited to briefly introduce themselves.

A large man, turbaned and dressed in saffron, his opening words were “Sisters and Brothers of America…” Immediately his warm, passionate spirit evoked something visceral in the crowd. They jumped to their feet, clapping and cheering, going on for more than two minutes before he had a chance to address them. Newspapers across the country, and in India, ran with the story for the next ten days. The New York Herald proclaimed him “undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions.”

Vivekanada’s theme at the Parliament was the importance of religious people to honor their own traditions in friendly, constructive relations with other traditions. 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 it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminic or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its catholicity will find a place for every human being, from the lowest groveling savage not far removed from the brute to the highest man towering by the virtues of his head and heart almost above humanity.

“It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered in aiding humanity to realize its own true, divine nature. Offer such a religion and all the nations will follow you. 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.”

In his early twenties, after his spiritual mentor died and a monastic order established, Swamiji spent three years walking across India. This photograph was taken in Jaipur.

In his early twenties, after his spiritual mentor died and a monastic order established, Swamiji spent three years walking across India. This photograph was taken in Jaipur.

Swami Vivekanada spent the next four years in the academies, salons, and lecture halls of America and Europe teaching Vedanta, grounded in India’s ancient Upanishads. He drew new followers wherever he spoke, and he formed the Vedanta Society in 1896 to continue the work.

Vivekananda returned to India an unprecedented celebrity, the teacher who had famously reintroduced India and it spiritual tradition to the West. After centuries of Muslim and Christian religious colonialism in India, he had unveiled his culture’s deepest roots to praise and approval in the United States and Europe. The result was tumultuous throughout India. Devotees in Madras (renamed Chennai) had first suggested the trip, and his arrival home secured a holiday for all. Seventeen huge victory arches graced his way into the city. Twenty-four distinguished leaders welcomed him home in several languages. Reputation and the vision of a renewed India he brought home inspired a national Hindu revival and planted seeds for the freedom movement which finally returned India’s sovereignty back to India in 1947.

Swami spent most of the rest of his all-too-short life strengthening the Ramakrishna Order, commissioned by his spiritual mentor, Sri Ramakrishna. And he founded and developed the Ramakrishna Mission, which provides comfort and resource to the poorest, the sick, and the oppressed. More than 130 centers, monasteries and medical facilities, dot India now, serving hundreds of thousands. And, like the Vedanta Society, Ramakrishna centers today exist in 19 countries.

Such was one monk’s achievement in a life which ended a few months before his fortieth birthday on July 4, 1902. The death was attributed to chronic poor health and exhaustion, but he welcomed it as a spiritual homecoming. He spent the day he died meditating and studying Sanskrit.

Where Did He Come From?

When a leader as phenomenal as Vivekananda dramatically steps onto the world stage, one must wonder where he came from. How did he develop the gifts, the acumen and wisdom to renew an ancient culture, provide comfort to millions of the disinherited, and help shift the direction of world religion?

Narendra Nath Datta was born into a well-known Calcutta (today Kolkata) family on January 12, 1863. His father was multi-lingual, a student of the Bible, a fan of Sufi poetry, an amateur musician (who insisted on his son’s musical training), and a successful attorney in the Calcutta High Court. He was known for his generosity and progressive attitude towards social and religious issues. Mother was a joyfully pious woman, filling her son’s imagination with stories and poetry from Hinduism’s vast array of religious literature.

Naren was brilliant. By seven he could recite long passages from his favorite story, the Ramayana. As a student he read both Western and Indian philosophy and literature, becoming an able peer in the most distinguished universities of the world. Following the Parliament he turned down Harvard’s offer to become Chair of Oriental Religion and said no to a Chair in Sanskrit at Columbia University to be in India.

As a child the boy was precocious, rambunctious, challenging authority, but always with good humor, laughter and song. He was leader of the gang at school and remembered as bursting with energy. Western science and philosophy challenged Naren deeply. Though he was influenced by the progressive Brahmo Samaj reform movement as a teenager, he gradually turned away from his religious heritage. When this sophisticated young adult visited the renowned Sri Ramakrishna in a poor community north of Calcutta, though, he was shaken to his roots.

Sri Ramakrishna was a socially progressive mystic and one of India’s most beloved spiritual teachers. He opposed the caste system, called for the emancipation of women, took time to practice several religions other than his own (to see what they share with his), and taught a synthesis of spiritual formation and humanitarian care. Young Narendra argued endlessly with him, which no one ever did, and for months wrestled his way through the faith assumptions and issues which would shape his life.

Despite their differences, an immediate recognition and kinship between the old wiseman and a brilliant young leader, falling in love with God, was clear from the start. Naren had gone to law school to help his family after his father’s death, but the spiritual pull prevailed. Sri Ramakrishna became his mentor and, before he died, prepared Naren to form an order, monastic and humanitarian, for the work to come. With Sri Ramakrishna’s death, Naren spent two years establishing a monastery, Ramakrishna Math, and then spent three years walking the length and breadth of the subcontinent, from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari, India’s southernmost beach, to see and learn more about his home.

Days before Naren first sailed to America, one of his first devotees, the Maharajah of Khetri, asked him to take a new name as he went on his mission, after which he was known as Swami Vivekananda. The name means he who is filled with the “bliss” (ananda) of “discernment” or “wisdom” (viveka), a discernment tuned not only to the Vedas but to the needs of everyday people. His driving motive for going to America was generating support for the poor in India, starting with outcasts. He acted on that goal while he was teaching in the West, which allowed him to establish the Ramakrishna Mission when he returned home.

The Universal Temple at Sri Ramakrishna Math, where Swami Vivekananda spent his last days and was cremated.

The Universal Temple at Sri Ramakrishna Math, where Swami Vivekananda spent his last days and was cremated.

For Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, God is present throughout the creation, and particularly in human beings. So when human beings suffer, the most important response (considering who they are!) is to love and care for them.

Equally important, theirs was a story of India. Joseph Campbell, in his travel journal Baksheesh and Brahman (2002), remembers Mahatma Gandhi saying his whole life was dedicated to bringing Vivekananda’s ideas into action. India’s greatest modern poet, Rabindranath Tagore, added, “If you want to get to know India, get to know Vivekananda.”

The benediction this saint left to the Ramakrisha Order was short and clear: “Arise and wake, and stop not until the goal is reached.” The 21st century is still far shy of the goal, but one imagines Swamiji might be moved and pleased to see the interfaith dialogue he still helps inspire 118 years after his visit to Chicago.

Vivekananda biographies abound on the web. This profile draws heavily from A Short Biography of Swami Vivekananda (1995) by Swami Tejasananda. The Vedanta Society recommends it as a good introduction to his life and work. You can read it on the web. Special thanks goes to Swami Vedananda of the Vedenta Society of San Francisco for his counsel.