Saturday, January 12, 2013

This universal religion

Swami Vivekananda, an Indian monk credited with raising the profile of Hinduism on the world stage and introducing yoga to the West, was born 150 years ago today. There is no readily-available evidence that he kept a diary, but his collected works - first published a century ago and widely available on the internet - contain several sections described as being sourced ‘from the diary of a disciple’.

Narendranath Datta was born on 12 January 1863 in Calcutta (now Kolkata) into an upper middle class family. He received a privileged education, that included Western philosophy and history, at the General Assembly’s Institution (now the Scottish Church College). Although initially rejecting the teachings of the famous Indian mystic, Ramakrishna, he was eventually drawn, after the death of his father, to become Ramakrishna’s pupil, and then his chief disciple. After Ramakrishna’s death, he and several other disciples founded the first building of the Ramakrishna Math - the monastery of the first monastic order of Ramakrishna. In 1887, he took formal monastic vows with the name Swami Bibidishananda, though later he was given the name Vivekananda.

In 1888, Vivekananda left the monastery to take up the Hindu religious life of a wandering monk. He travelled extensively in India for five years, mostly living on alms, visiting centres of learning, meeting people from all strata of Indian life and all religions, and taking on disciples. Through these travels he became familiar with India’s diverse religious traditions and social patterns. In 1893, he made his way to the US, via Japan and China, where he took part in the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. He was an instant success. Wikipedia’s biography of Vivekananda says this about his presence at the Parliament.

‘Dr. Barrows, the president of the Parliament said, “India, the Mother of religions was represented by Swami Vivekananda, the Orange-monk who exercised the most wonderful influence over his auditors.” He attracted widespread attention in the press, which dubbed him as the “Cyclonic monk from India”. The New York Critique wrote, “He is an orator by divine right, and his strong, intelligent face in its picturesque setting of yellow and orange was hardly less interesting than those earnest words, and the rich, rhythmical utterance he gave them.” The New York Herald wrote, “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.” The American newspapers reported Vivekananda as “the greatest figure in the parliament of religions” and “the most popular and influential man in the parliament”.

The start of Western interest in Indian religions and aspects of them, like yoga, are credited to Vivekananda, and, specifically to his presence at the Chicago Parliament of World Religions. Thereafter, Vivekananda toured the US, lecturing for the best part of two years; he also founded the Vedanta Society of New York in 1894. He stopped touring the following year but gave free classes on Vedanta and yoga. He visited England twice, travelling from the US, before returning to India in 1897. In Calcutta once again, he established the Ramakrishna Mission. It is now based, on the outskirts of Kolkata, at the Belur Math, in a large temple notable for architecture that fuses Hindu, Christian and Islamic motifs.

Despite declining health, Vivekananda left India, in 1899, for England, then the US, and then Europe, where he attended the Congress of Religions in Paris in 1900. He returned to Calcutta in 1902, settling at the Belur Math, where he received many visitors, not least royals and politicians. He died in July 1902, aged but 39. There is much information about Vivekananda on the internet, at Wikipedia, and the Belur Math website.

Vivekananda’s collected writings were first published in English in eight volumes starting in 1915, but have been republished many times since. The volumes contain the few works he published in his lifetime (Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga, Vedanta Philosophy), and many of the lectures he gave. Amazon is offering a 1947 edition, totalling 4444 pages, for £24 or $25. However, these collected works are also widely available to read freely on the internet at, for example, Advaita Ashram, Holy Books, and Wikisource.

Although there is no evidence of any diary Vivekananda might have written, several of the volumes contain substantial texts described as ‘from the diary of a disciple’ (the disciple being Sharatchandra Chakravarty). These are not dated like conventional diary entries, and largely consist of verbatim reports of Vivekananda’s conversations with disciples. Here is one example (translated from the original language, Bengali) taken from the Belur Math website.

‘It is three or four days since Swamiji has set his foot in Calcutta (On February 20, 1897) after his first return from the West. The joy of the devotees of Shri Ramakrishna knows no bounds at enjoying his holy presence after a long time. And the well-to-do among them are considering themselves blessed to cordially invite Swamiji to their own houses. This afternoon Swamiji had an invitation to the house of Srijut Priyanath Mukhopadhyaya, a devotee of Shri Ramakrishna, at Rajballabhpara in Baghbazar. Receiving this news, many devotees assembled today in his house. [. . .]

While various topics were going on, a man came in and announced that Mr. Narendranath Sen, the Editor of the Mirror, had come for an interview with Swamiji. Swamiji asked the bearer of this news to show him into that small room. Narendra Babu came and taking a seat there introduced various topics about England and America. In answer to his questions Swamiji said, “Nowhere in the world is to be found another nation like the Americans, so generous, broad-minded, hospitable, and so sincerely eager to accept new ideas.” “Wherever work”, he went on, “has been done in America has not been done through my power. The people of America have accepted the ideas of Vedanta, because they are so good-hearted.”

Referring to England he said, “There is no nation in the world so conservative as the English. They do not like so easily to accept any new idea, but if through perseverance they can be once made to understand any idea, they will never give it up by any means. Such firm determination you will find in no other nation. This is why they occupy the foremost position in the world in power and civilization.” Then declaring that if qualified preachers could be had, there was greater likelihood of the Vedanta work being permanently established in England than in America, he continued, “I have only laid the foundation of the work. If future preachers follow my path, a good deal of work may be done in time.”

Narendra Babu asked, “What future prospect is there for us in preaching religion in this way?”

Swamiji said: “In our country there is only this religion of Vedanta. Compared with the Western civilisation, it may be said, we have hardly got anything else. But by the preaching of this universal religion of Vedanta, a religion which gives equal rights to acquire spirituality to men of all creeds and all paths of religious practice, the civilised West would come to know what a wonderful degree of spirituality once developed in India and how that is still existing. By the study of this religion, the Western nations will have increasing regard and sympathy for us. Already these have grown to some extent. In this way, if we have their real sympathy and regard, we would learn from them the sciences bearing on our material life, thereby qualifying ourselves better for the struggle for existence. On the other hand, by learning this Vedanta from us, they will be enabled to secure their own spiritual welfare.”

Narendra Babu asked, “Is there any hope of our political progress in this kind of interchange?”

Swamiji said, “They (the Westerners) are the children of the great hero Virochana! Their power makes the five elements play like puppets in their hands. If you people believe that we shall in case of conflict with them gain freedom by applying those material forces, you are profoundly mistaken. Just as a little piece of stone figures before the Himalayas, so we differ from them in point of skill in the use of those forces. Do you know what my idea is? By preaching the profound secrets of the Vedanta religion in the Western world, we shall attract the sympathy and regard of these mighty nations, maintaining for ever the position of their teacher in spiritual matters, and they will remain our teachers in all material concerns. The day when, surrendering the spiritual into their hands, our countrymen would sit at the feet of the West to learn religion, that day indeed the nationality of this fallen nation will be dead and gone for good. Nothing will come of crying day and night before them, ‘Give me this or give me that.’ Then there will grow a link of sympathy and regard between both nations by this give-and-take intercourse, there will be then no need for these noisy cries. They will do everything of their own accord. I believe that by this cultivation of religion and the wider diffusion of Vedanta, both this country and the West will gain enormously. To me the pursuit of politics is a secondary means in comparison with this. I will lay down my life to carry out this belief practically. If you believe in any other way of accomplishing the good of India, well, you may go on working your own way.”

Narendra Babu shortly left, expressing his unqualified agreement with Swamiji’s ideas. The disciple, hearing the above words from Swamiji, astonishingly contemplated his luminous features with steadfast gaze.’

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