A Swami Who Changed the World

Cambridge, MA. Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Narendra Nath Datta, better known as Swami Vivekananda (January 12, 1863-July 4, 1902). The Swami was one of the original disciples of the Hindu saint and mystic Ramakrishna (1836-1886). Ramakrishna himself was a visionary figure who inspired millions by his devotion to the Goddess Kali, by delving very deeply into various other strands of Hindu spirituality and practice, and by experimenting with Islam and Christianity in particular, coming to the view that all religions could from a spiritual perspective be valued and honored. Like the other early followers, Vivekananda was looking for intellectual and spiritual rejoinders to the British and Christian missionaries in India, and he perceived that in Ramakrishna a way forward had been opened, and a way that was not simply political but also spiritual, not simply pious and private but also social and progressive.

Yet there was an intense spiritual core to his choice of a future. The traditional account puts it this way: “One day in November 1881, Narendra went to meet Sri Ramakrishna who was staying at the Kali Temple in Dakshineshwar. He straightaway asked the Master a question which he had put to several others but had received no satisfactory answer: ‘Sir, have you seen God?’ Without a moment's hesitation, Sri Ramakrishna replied: ‘Yes, I have. I see Him as clearly as I see you, only in a much intenser sense.’ …Narendra now became a frequent visitor to Dakshineshwar and, under the guidance of the Master, made rapid strides on the spiritual path.” We can see this as the conversion story of a young man already very serious about spiritual realities. Vivekananda quickly became a leader of that small group of men and women from Calcutta who, rather than disbanding after Ramakrishna’s death, formed both a monastic community, the Ramakrishna Math (monastic community), and a wider organization dedicated to teaching, preaching, and social service, the Ramakrishna Mission. The Mission is particularly well known in India, in part for its notable contributions to education and medical care for the poor.

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Many readers of this blog will be aware of the Vedanta Centers found in many America cities. (There are several in Manhattan alone.) Many of these centers have their origins in the visits of Vivekananda to the West in the 1890s, where he preached a form of inclusive Hinduism, the universality of a path of spiritual wisdom and practice, and enthused a number of Western listeners to become practitioners of Vedanta meditation, many without leaving entirely behind their own Christian traditions. A loose comparison that works to an extent: Vivekananda is the “St. Paul” of the Ramakrishna movement, its most articulate early teacher, global preacher and lecturer, and a man of practical wisdom who got both the Math and the Mission off to a solid start. Personally, I am intrigued by one similarity between him and Ignatius Loyola: the ability to take a religious vision of life, and deep personal experiences, and craft them into a company of friends that would continue to thrive long after the founders were gone. (I would not be the first to compare Jesuits and Ramakrishna swamis. Some of the first disciples had in fact studied at St. Xavier’s, the Jesuit college in Calcutta.)

Vivekananda is perhaps best known for his visit to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 where, perhaps beyond the expectations of the organizers (early proponents of an inclusive Christian world mission that could live on good terms with members of other faiths), he became one of the most noted figures. One of his speeches there is short enough to include here:

“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 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 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 childhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: ‘As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the 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, though 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.” Others of his Chicago speeches can be found here.

Swami Vivekananda was not a systematic thinker, though prolific enough in teaching, lecturing, and letter-writing that his collected works run to nine volumes — and that for a man who died before his fortieth birthday. Yet his legacy is arguably great. The interfaith movement has grown, partly through the work of the Ramakrishna Mission and in part directly as the heritage of the 1893 Parliament, many other figures have gained attention on the world stage, and interfaith values are well known today and in many circles taken for granted. There have been innumerable advances in the field, as well as second thoughts and historical studies, some critical, of early figures such as Vivekananda. Some have thought that he contributed to a bland and generic interfaith respect; others find in his work simply a transcendental form of Hinduism as the one true universal religion. Others have been intrigued by his ability to explain Vedanta theology and Yoga in ways that helped make them available very widely inside and outside of India; and inevitably, some have thought that he simplified things along the way. But in the end, one can hardly imagine Hinduism today, or our sense of the plurality of religions as a gift and not a threat, without gratitude to the Swami. All of us need to be grateful for the work and message of Vivekananda; we are the better for his brief, passionate presence on global affairs, and so it is quite fitting to remember him on this one hundred fifieth anniversary.

Here at Harvard we will have a commemoration event on February 8, a panel reflecting on Vivekananda’s heritage and relevance for Hinduism and interfaith work today. I am happy to be cooperating on the event with, among others, the current head of the Vedanta Society in Boston, Swami Tyagananda. And it seems that we will be fortunate in being able to hold the event in Harvard Yard’s Sever Hall, where Vivekananda lectured in 1894.

Francis X Clooney SJ

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