The Fourth of July has a special significance for those of us who follow Swami Vivekananda, and the Fourth of July had a special significance for him. In four of the years he spent in this country, being present in July, he celebrated the holiday with his companions and friends. Moreover, while spending the summer in London, he was guest of honor when the American community there celebrated it, in a gala occasion hosted by a high society American lady who had married a British banker.
More notable still, in the valley of Kashmir, where he had taken some of his close followers to live on a houseboat on that gorgeous lake, he insisted on observing the Fourth when the day approached, with a party and decorations; his friends even hired an Indian tailor to make what might pass as an American flag!
It was in 1902 that he looked in an almanac a few months ahead and apparently chose deliberately to leave this earth on the evening of July 4th. We take this as a symbol. Vivekananda, who had all his thirty-nine years chafed under the burden of an unwell body, found his independence from it at last, his mission accomplished, now achieving his well-deserved rest. He gave out certain signs on the late days of his life that, his work being over, he would accept now the mergence in Freedom which his Master had promised. Lying on his cot in the evening, he sent away his attendant, entered into a deep meditation and did not return to our world.
Subsequently (though it is not strong in the Hindu tradition to make much of the day of death), we observe and celebrate this as a day of glory in all our monasteries and centers. I vividly recall the holiday as it was celebrated in our monastery at Trabuco Canyon in Southern California in 1950. About 400 people turned up and were fed, then entertained with speeches by the Swamis and the special guest, playwright John Van Druten, and by music composed and sung by members of the monastery.
Here is Swami Vivekananda’s poem to the Fourth, which he composed on that houseboat in Kashmir and read, or had someone read, at the early morning breakfast. As he did in everything, in this symbol of American freedom too, he saw divinity:
Behold, the dark clouds melt away,
That gathered thick at night, and hung
So like a gloomy pall above the earth!
Before thy magic touch, the world
Awakes. The birds in chorus sing.
The flowers raise their star-like crowns–
Dew-set, and wave thee welcome fair.
The lakes are opening wide in love
Their hundred thousand lotus-eyes
To welcome thee, with all their depth.
All hail to thee, thou Lord of Light!
A welcome new to thee, today,
O Sun! Today thou sheddest Liberty!
Bethink thee how the world did wait,
And search for thee, through time and clime.
Some gave up home and love of friends,
And went in quest of thee, self-banished,
Through dreary oceans, through primeval forests,
Each step a struggle for their life or death;
And worship, love and sacrifice.
Fulfilled, accepted and complete.
Then thou, propitious, rose to shed
The light of Freedom on mankind.
Move on, O Lord, in thy resistless path!
Till thy high noon o’erspreads the world.
Till every land reflects thy light,
Till men and women, with uplifted head,
Behold their shackles broken, and
Know, in springing joy, their life renewed!
I put this before you, not because it is great poetry, but because it was the heartfelt expression of a prophet, a great and reverential man. It starts in the dawn in which it was composed, with the victory of day over night, light over dark, and goes on in that victorious vein; but this is not battle-victory; it is the triumph of ideas. It is typical of its day (1898)–flowery, Victorian; today we might hum high violins in the background–but it is also typical of Swamiji: positive, optimistic, prophetic.
He loved the United States as if it were his native country. What he gave especially to his American listeners and followers will be mentioned later. On his arrival in Chicago he lived with a midwestern American family and from them he had much to learn and learned it most willingly; only then was he ready to teach.
But what, exactly, was American Independence, in the eyes of Swami Vivekananda?
In the Declaration we asserted our political independence from the land of origin. But it is important to realize that we have gone on declaring it ever since: in George Washington’s speeches, in the Monroe Doctrine, in our relatively small involvement in European and Asian internal conflicts. It is reflected again in the furor felt by many citizens at the idea of a third, and a fourth, term for Franklin Roosevelt. Swami Vivekananda saw this as an ongoing process and appreciated it and praised it, for his own reasons. His conception of freedom came from his immersion in the ideas and ideals of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. He knew and tried to convey to us that men would never be content with a partial, a temporal and temporary, image of freedom. Let us hear some of the things he said:
Neither the Declaration nor its framers had absolute freedom in view. Jefferson had said, “The greatest freedom is the right to use our reason.” If this be true, we have much to do yet in exercising that right, in ever more significant ways.
He asked us to take a good look at the contrast between the freedoms we profess and our actual behavior, in gender, race and religious prejudice. He commented on the bondage our desires create for us, notably when we talk of our “work time” and our “free time,” and the dislike we often cherish for the former, and even hate our work; on how our emotions and passions make us slaves to one another, positively or negatively. Swami cited the traditional examples of the Pandava brothers, Yudhishthira and Arjuna, both of whom complained to the Lord, “I know what I should be doing, but am unable to do it, and what I should not do, but am unable to prevent myself.” “What sort of freedom is this?” asks Vivekananda.
Often, it seems, we do not really want freedom. A classic and popular book titled, Escape from Freedom. was written by Erich Fromm. Many thinkers write in that way, using that language. Swami Vivekananda never did. He told the true story of a Chinese prisoner incarcerated for long years in a cave with no light at all, who was suddenly freed, when the government changed. The man could not stand the pain of light, and retreated to remain in his darkness. I once lectured to a group of Young Humanists in London, after which a young lady, a leader, complained to me that the “total freedom” I had propounded, she was not prepared to accept: the total responsibility it entailed was frightening.
But in defining liberty as the soul’s total independence from bodily demands and mental stagnation, Swamiji did not negate nor devalue our relative freedom. “Liberty is the first condition of growth,” he says. “Just as a man must have liberty to think and speak, so he must have liberty in food, dress and marriage, and in every other thing, so long as he does not injure others.” Even a high degree of this “human” freedom, however, does not guarantee success. Power does not always mean happiness–certainly not perduring–as Pharaohs and emperors know, as well as the worker on the assembly line. In prosaic illustration of this, we know of a worker who, achieving a long-sought promotion to inspectorship, found herself now faced with decisions, thick and fast, and stress she had never known farther down the line.
“Where is true independence?” Vivekananda asks. “It is not freedom of the senses; it is freedom from the senses.” Bound in the habits and demands of our physical and vital energies we are and ever will be, only slaves. His Master, Sri Ramakrishna tells us, echoing the Buddha, “What you think you are, you become. Think constantly of the spirit and spirit you become, for freedom and bondage are of the mind.”
Swamiji made us realize, by constant reminder and example, that freedom from death must mean freedom from life. “No covering the corpse with flowers.” This world of our senses cannot be made a sorrowless playground where only the good and the perfect have sway, and the door be sealed where evil dwells. We know the one only by the other, in this spinning miasma of the pairs of opposites. Give up “Life” and “Death” goes too, leaving us where we always are: pure Spirit. “He is free, he is great,” he said, “who turns his back upon this world, who has renounced everything, who has controlled his passion, and who thirsts for peace. One may gain political independence,” Swamiji added, “but if one is a slave to ones passions and desires, one cannot feel the pure joy of real freedom.”
Let us look at some of the specific kinds of freedom Swami Vivekananda admired in our society.
- Freedom from arbitrary authority. A modern example will be the Supreme Court’s decision on the Nixon tapes: even the President cannot have absolute immunity.
- Freedomto worship as we please. This was not, in his time, nor is it now, complete. Certain minorities can point to places where they may not operate, rituals they may not perform, acts they may believe in but cannot carry out. But this was a cardinal point settled in the war between Great Britain and her American colonies: that the churches should be free from state control. I have lived in the former, and have seen the social and prestigial differences which are created in statecraft merely by church affiliation or lack of the same.
- Freedomto assemble. The difference between the United States and Communist Poland before “Solidarity”, for example, and other countries behind the Iron Curtain, or in the theocratic governments of the Third World, in this right of the common people to gather, combine and protest or promote, was clear to Vivekananda in 1900.
- Freedomto have a speedy public trial. Contrast this with the situation in his native India, where suspects can languish in prisons and jails for months and years with no trial. But today we too are falling behind on this freedom, as crime increases and courts become glutted.
- Freedomfrom excessive bail or fine; to have defense counsel; to have military justice subordinated to civil justice. These are our judicial freedoms.
These are our political, judicial and civic rights, of which we may and should be proud. At the risk of being disingenuous I should say that America still attempts to champion these everywhere it can.
Is there something of Vedantic conviction in the assertion and preservation of these rights? Something they show in common regarding our value-structure? I think so. They uphold the dignity of the human being — each human being, each individual. Swami Vivekananda regarded dignity as a hallmark of the human species, and encouraged what he called “strength” or “manliness” as the desideratum for a society. Our founding fathers built our political, and to some extent social, system on several convictions: some on a brand of humanism, some on theological convention, but seeing man generally as a biological creature. The message of the Vedanta of Vivekananda is to see his divinity.