Every Indian schoolchild seems to be told that an Indian sannyasin, Swami Vivekananda, went to America and made a sensation at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, and that this has something to do with the rejuvenation of India. About the antecedents of Vivekananda they may know almost nothing — his Western-type education, the years of preparation at the feet of Sri Ramakrishna and the wanderings through nearly every part of India to gain his practical experience; nor do they know much of what happened in the rich remainder of his brief life. If you are one so deprived, you may want to know that volumes have been written detailing all of the above.
The average resident of the U.S.A. today has never even heard his name nor knows what the Parliament of Religions was. Such is the fate of a minority faith, in a society raised totally on secular lines. We do not teach our people the history of ideas or philosophies, generally: only of battles and presidents and movie stars. If any ordinary American knows Swamiji’s name, it is likely to be from reading his only widely-known book, Raja Yoga — one of the least typical and representative of his productions.
His life in survey
We need to have a brief chronology of his American visits and experiences to keep in mind, and the following is an attempt at it. He came by ship to the west coast of Canada and arrived in Chicago in the summer of 1893. He discovered that the Parliament, his only fixed engagement, would not begin until September. What to do? He had very little money. So he bought a train ticket to New England (where living was said to be less expensive) and on the train happened to meet a cultured lady who became interested in Swamiji and took him to her house, showing him off to her friends! There he met a Dr. Wright, professor at Harvard, who, much impressed, wrote on his behalf to the Parliament authorities. (He had no formal papers.) The sessions of the Parliament, an adjunct of the Chicago World’s Fair ran from Sept. 11 to 27, 1893. Swami Vivekananda made his first public speeches and was a sensation. That part of his story is well known in India. About it he rightly wrote: “Never before did an Oriental make such an impression on American society.”
After the Parliament a lecture bureau signed him up and from the fall of 1893 to the end of 1894 he toured the eastern sections, getting invited as far north as Canada, and south as Memphis. At times Swamiji gave fourteen lectures, class talks and “parlor talks” in a week. Not all of the early lectures were on religion, and we will mention those later. At the beginning of 1895 he took an apartment in New York City and began weekly classes and discourses on the four Yogas, setting the patterns for the present Vedanta Societies. Naturally he had some funny experiences with his Western students. Once he had to proceed to the lecture hall through a vestibule where there was a full-length mirror. The lady who was assisting him at the time saw him stop, look into the mirror, proceed a few paces, return and look again; this happened twice. “Oh my,” she thought to herself, “he too is not above vanity!” Vivekananda turned to her and said, “You know, Ellen, it’s a strange thing: I cannot remember what I look like; the moment I leave the mirror that image is totally gone from my mind!”
All the time his mind was occupied with the problems of his homeland and their solution; he was writing to his brother-disciples in India: “Come out of your self-absorption! Stop all the rituals. Travel. Get organized for the worship of Man through selfless service!
After a long hard spring season, he was off to retreat at Thousand Island Park, New York for five weeks with a select twelve disciples, speaking with them “off the cuff” day and night for nearly six weeks. The notes, titled “Inspired Talks”, are some of his most dramatic utterances and it was there he composed the poem, “Song of the Sannyasin.” One afternoon , meditating in the woods, he went into samadhi. Then came a European interval in which he lectured in England and traveled on the Continent . He observed on the differences between Europe and America, saying to someone that in America alone there is a certain something in the air which brings out the best in everyone. Another time he called this a “sympathy.” But after three months in England Swamiji felt that his work there was very successful. He returned to New York and with almost no holiday, picked up the thread of the work and began his most productive year in the West, 1896. Between December 1895 and February of ’96 he gave seventy classes and ten public lectures, along with interviews, initiations, translation, writing and editing. He made trips to Boston, Chicago, and other cities and towns in the midwest and east, and again set sail for England. Teaching in London for nearly seven months, he left at last for home, for India, in December.
After enormous welcomes all the way from Sri Lanka to Calcutta, Vivekananda did not do public teaching in India. He set himself to the work of establishing the monastic base, Belur Math, near Calcutta, and the Ramakrishna Math (Order) and Mission. Yet only two-and-a-half years later all the signals were for making a second visit to the West. His American students were calling for him; he was known to have diabetes and his doctors urged him to regain his health through travel. Therefore in the summer of 1899 he did return to America, eventually carrying his message to California where he worked both in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the latter city he founded the second Vedanta Society, in 1900 (the first had been formed in New York, in 1894.) In the spring of 1900 he made his way back to his homeland via a tour through Europe and Egypt, and arrived at Belur Math. What followed was two years of semi-retirement and the consolidation of the Math and Mission. Swami Vivekananda gave up his body at the age of only thirty-nine, on (his choice) the great day of freedom, July Fourth.
What motivated Swami Vivekananda to come to America? It is usually thought that he had a command from his Master, Sri Ramakrishna, to do so, or that he came to “bring the message of Vedanta to the Western world.” But that was not his view of it at the time. Rather, it is our reading, our understanding as we look back through history. “I did not go to America for the Parliament of Religions,” he wrote; “I wanted to get experience and mix.” And that he did. He met some of the prominent figures of that day, whose names would mean little to us now. His most important contacts with the famous include those with philosopher and psychologist William James; Nicola Tesla, engineer and inventor; Mme. Calve, an opera soprano; actress Sarah Bernhardt; poet Ella Wheeler Willcox and Robert Ingersoll, the country’s most popular orator and agnostic.
Vivekananda learned only gradually about his mission. He came here, as he saw it, to try to raise funds for his new monastic plans in India. He saw that no one in that land would give such money and he hoped to make new friends and followers of Ramakrishna who would. The outcome? He got very little money for India. It was a case of serendipity, one could say. Slowly he realized that he was being used as a tool by the Divine Power — he was Mother’s child, made to play here for the sake of an act of the Divine Drama. At the end of 1894 he wrote to his Indian friends, “I find I have a mission in this country too.” Not only that. He saw how it would bring benefit to India in her enslavement to foreigners. “One blow struck outside India,” he wrote, “is equal to 100,000 within.”
It is quite clear, then, that Swami Vivekananda spent his best energies in this country. During his first twenty-nine years in India he was gathering the experience and the resources for his mission; and the last two years, also over there, he was polishing the Indian work and retiring from it. The whole middle period, his best seven years, he gave to the West. “I had to work,” he wrote to Mary Hale, the one he regarded as a sister, “till I am at death’s door and had to spend nearly the whole of that energy in America, so that the Americans may learn to be broader and more spiritual.”
Even his second visit was undertaken, not so much with this consciousness of a mission, but with the same frank and avowed purpose of raising funds for the Mission’s service work, this time, education. It always has to be so, that a great prophet like the Swami does his best work unconsciously. Good work is seldom done in the mission field if one is too conscious of being a missionary. He lived and breathed Vedanta: it came from every pore of his being and rubbed off on all who encountered him. He said once: “What I am is written on my brow. If you can read it you are blessed!” But when he goes to work he forgets this; he must, for other purposes come to the fore.
We mentioned that the Swami used to give some lectures on subjects other than Vedanta. Among them were, curiously, Persian art, the gold standard, Indian women. When one American woman made some remark to him about his teaching religion, he turned to her and said, “Madam, I am not teaching religion; I am selling my brain for money to help my people. If you get some lesson out of it, that is your benefit, not mine.”
Fruits of the labor
Now, as we look at it from this distance, what was the result of these years Swamiji spent working in our land? We, as his students and followers — what judgments do we make about the total effect upon our culture and our society? This is the main question to be addressed. He was speaking at the Brooklyn Ethical Society in 1896 when a reporter mentioned to him, perhaps critically, that Hinduism was not called a proselytising religion. This drew from him one of those flashes which epitomized the meaning of his entire life. He said, looking off into the distance: “I have a message for the West as Buddha had a message for the East.” Do we understand the implications of this? Is it not that Hinduism needs a “shaking up” from time to time and this time it would be via the West?
Other amusing things happened to him over here. One eager devotee, trying to help with the cure of his sporadic illnesses brought to him the services of a “magnetic healer” of the day — a woman who rubbed and rubbed his flesh till he was nearly raw, “drawing the prana.” Oh, how he described it! “Now I know what hell is: it’s being flayed alive by Mrs. Melton !”
Swamiji fell in love with America. He said it was where his heart was, and he loved the “Yankee-land” as he called it. He said he liked to see new things, not the old ruins of Europe. He felt that America was the place, the people and the opportunity for everything. He may have upset the reporter, when in London he said, “The American civilization is in my opinion, a very great one. I find the American mind peculiarly susceptible to new ideas, nothing is rejected because it is new. It is examined on its own merits.” He told people in Calcutta: “America is where, more than anywhere else, the feeling of brotherhood has been developed. An American meets you for five minutes on board a train and you are his friend, and the next moment he invites you as a guest to his house and opens his whole home to you. He spoke particularly of our women: “Their kindness to me it would take me years to tell. “They are the life and soul of this country” he remarked, and said he could never repay his debt of gratitude to them.
Swami Vivekananda did not, however, see only our virtues! He saw many other things besides. He saw for instance that American men profess to worship women, but behind all the chivalry was lust. “They simply worship youth and beauty, they never fall in love with wrinkles and gray hair! “His message to the West was dynamite! It turned our whole self-appraisal upside-down. Swamiji wrote in a letter to India: “Nowhere have I heard so much talk about freedom — ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ — and nowhere is it less understood.” Ingersoll, popular orator of the day, much given to ridiculing religion, told Vivekananda: “If you had come to this country fifty years ago, you would have been hanged.”
Swamiji is quite correct in saying that the West never had the true idea of soul until they got it through Sanskrit philosophy in the 1870s. From the time of the Greeks, Plato and Aristotle, “soul” in the West has been confused with mind. His clear expositions of Vedanta philosophy made a very great impact on his listeners. To the shame of America, the jealous missionaries, fearful of their revenues, lit into him with a vengeance. That is a sad story which we do not like to tell. The letters columns in Detroit papers were full of the lies and half-truths concocted by missionaries to discredit him. “There is not one black lie, he used to say, “they did not cook up to use against me.” Swami Vivekananda’s character shone through it all. No one who knew him believed the slanders. But he also fought back in his own way. He praised Jesus Christ — and Christians when he found them faithful to Christ; but he “told them off” when he did not, and drew a line between Christ and Christianity. “Christianity,” he told a large audience, “wins it prosperity by cutting the throats of its fellow-men.” “Go back to Christ!” he thundered, “stop worshipping this almighty dollar!” He was a prophet. He saw the West in 1900 as living on a volcano and predicted the first and second World Wars.
Touched the heart and brain of America
Now we, his followers, must come to our own assessment of the movement, and summarize his American achievement. In a very few sentences: Swami Vivekananda took his Master’s message to a foreign world; there he learned the language of that world; then gave the universal message for the Age in that language of education, science, research and experiment. Moreover, he demonstrated, in himself, a new kind of person to the American people: the universal man, so to say, the man for all ages, all nations, all faiths — a new breed. He spoke of “the new American,” who would accept all from the past and be open to all of the future. Do you know what he said? He said, “I must touch the brain of America and stir it up if I can.” He did.
His was a universal message, his Vedanta. “Do you think people in this country would be much attracted if I talked about Hinduism?” he asked his brother monks in India. “The very name of narrowness in ideas will scare them away! The real thing is the religion taught by Sri Ramakrishna, let the Hindus call it Hinduism, let others call it whatever they like.” “I do not want to convert you to a new belief,” he told us; “I want you to keep your own belief; I want to make the Methodist a better Methodist, the Muslim a better Muslim, the Hindu a better Hindu.” “I do not say to the West, ‘take up our method.’ My message in life is to ask East and West not to quarrel over different ideals, but to show them that the goal is the same.”
Finally, he told his brother-disciples that Indian spirituality must conquer the West, and he sowed the seeds of that conquest. He told those whom he had sent here to carry on the work begun, “If you live for some time in places where I have sowed the seeds of our Master’s ideals and develop those into plants, you will be doing a much greater work than I did.” When the United States celebrated its Bicentennial in 1976, The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. published a book titled Abroad in America, writing up twenty-seven “visitors” to this country (who did not remain here) who had most influenced the culture. One, recognized at last, was Swami Vivekananda.