In his soul stirring speech at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago on September 11, 1893 Vivekananda drew the world’s attention towards India’s rich history and strong cultural roots
History reveals that when the general of Alexander, Selucas, got defeated by Chandragupta, the Greeks got assimilated into the then Hindu society in Bharat. Thereafter, the foreign aggression of Kushans, Shakas, Hunas left deep wounds in the heart of Bharat. Taking the advantage of some weakness in Hindu society, races like Turks, Arabs, Iranians, Moghuls and Afghans entrenched with ‘Semitic” thought, attacked Bharat like hordes of locusts and destroyed the fabric of Bharat. All these invasions, including the Islamic, ruined the progress that Bharat had been making in the field of material science. With the coming of the Britishers the people were very impressed with the steam engine, shiny metallic road, factories, telephones and telegraphs and wondering bridges over rivers. Even the learned people were mesmerised by such developments. They started thinking that the British were God-sent angels from heaven and had come to rescue the Hindus from the darkness of ignorance cast over the sky of Bharat, by the Islamic rule. They even started suffering from a sense of inferiority about Hindu Dharma. Ultimately, the Hindus became ashamed of calling themselves Hindu.
Against this backdrop appeared Vivekananda and delivered his soul searching speech in Chicago. In his first speech on September 11, 1893 he said, “Oh my brothers and sisters of America…. I thank you on behalf of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.…..” Swamiji didn’t thank the Americans on behalf of Indians living in British India as the then English educated personalities used to say. He thanked them as a proud representative of the Hindus, who felt ashamed to call themselves ‘Hindu’. This can be taken as an instance of the appearance of the proud Hindu in the midst of the vainglorious ‘West’ that we have also something to deliver, to preach and to give to the West. He also declared that the Hindus gave shelter to a part of the Jews, driven out by the Roman Empire and also to the rest of the Persians.
Generally, people invited by the west, speak to appease the west, even today also. But on 19th September, in his written article titled ‘Hindu Religion’, he didn’t only sing the glories of ‘Advaitavaad’, just to appease the monotheist west, as it is the central tenet of the ‘Christian’ and the ‘Jews’ religion. Rather he explained the significance of idolatry in the same article with these words, “Thus is it, through multiplicity and duality, that the ultimate unity is reached. Religion can go no farther. This is the goal of all science.” In addition to this, having challenged the critics of idolatry—the west he said: “Superstition is a great enemy of man, but bigotry is worse. Why does a Christian go to church? Why is the Cross holy? Why is the face turned towards the sky in prayer? Why are there so many images in the Catholic Church? Why are there so many images in the minds of Protestants when they pray?”
The singularity of Swamiji is that though he was a representative of a dependent nation, he spoke so royally and with self-confidence at the ‘Religion Conference’, it seemed as if a saffron-clad sage had come to rescue the Christians from their domain of seen. According to the Bible, the Christians regard themselves as sinner. In the same article Swamiji caustically remarked, “Children of immortal bliss” –what a sweet, what a hopeful name! Allow me to call you, brethren, by that sweet name—heirs of immortal bliss—yea, the Hindu refuses to call you sinners. Ye are the Children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth—sinners! It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature.”
At that time at that patronage and support of the British rulers, the Christian Missionaries were engaged in Bharat in religious conversion. The then Indians had great reverence for those missionaries. The singularity of Vivekananda is this that he exposed their conspiracy of ‘conversion under the guise of charity’ standing in the land of the Christians with these words: “You Christians, who are so fond of sending out missionaries to save the soul of the heathen–why do you not try to save their bodies from starvation? In India, during the terrible famines, thousands died of hunger, yet you Christians did nothing. You erect churches all through India, but the crying evil in the East is not religion—they have religion enough…….”
Everyone knows that the Semitic people only believe in their own existence. That’s why they declared crusades to destroy people of other religions. On September 29 in his farewell speech at Chicago, Vivekananda also gave a slap on the face of these people by saying: “But if anyone here hopes that this unity will come by the triumph of any one of the religions and the destruction of the other, to him I say, “Brother, yours is an impossible hope.”
The uniqueness of Swamiji is this that he didn’t win the west by singing their glories. He rather pointed out the limitations of their spiritual thought. The voice of a representative from a defeated and subjugated nation, won the hearts of the west because he spoke freely, fearlessly and boldly. As a result of speech, the Hinduism was
established as a religion of special quality and greatness and the Hindu could gain their lost self-confidence and self-identity.
New York Herald commented on his first speech thus: “He 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.” Marwin Snail, the president of the Columbia Exhibition and World Science Congress commented, “No religious body made so profound an impression upon the Parliament and the American people at large, as did Hinduism.”
Therefore, it goes to sole credit of Vivekananda that he could pronounce that the Hindu religion, which had been declared dead 5,000 years ago, was very much alive and
thriving. This made Vivekananda became an icon of self-identity to the self-forgetful Hindus. After he came back to Bharat, the common people started to listen to his speeches in rapt attention. Before Vivekananda had delivered the Chicago lecture the Bharatiyas had remained
mesmerised by the riches and progress of the material science and the magic of the grandeur of the British rule. But slowly after the lecture, the common people as well as the intellectuals started to get mesmerised by the magic spell of Vivekananda. His clarion call to the people to break the shackles of bondage of the west: “Proudly say I am a Hindu.” and: “O Bharat! With this mere echoing of others, with this base imitation of others, with this dependence of others, this Slavish weakness, this vile detestable cruelty – wouldst thou, with these provisions only, scale the highest pinnacle of civilization and greatness? Wouldst thou attain, by means of the disgraceful cowardice, that freedom deserve only by the brave and heroic?……” sent instigation to the heads of the self-forgetful, self-confidence less, impotent and dying nation. His speech electrified the entire nation. In this context, the appearance of Vivekananda can be compared to the appearance of Adi Shankaracharya.
After the death of Vivekananda in 1902, Tilak wrote in obituary: “It is an undisputed fact that it was Swami Vivekananda who first held aloft the banner of Hinduism as a challenge against the materialism of the west. It was Swami Vivekananda who took on his shoulders this stupendous task of establishing the glory of Hinduism in different countries across the borders. And he with his erudition, intellectual and oratorical powers enthusiasm and inner fore laid this work upon a solid foundation. Twelve centuries ago Shankaracharya was the only personality, who not only spoke of the purity of our religion, not only uttered in words that this religion is our strength and wealth, not only said that it is our sacred duty to preach this religion in the length and breadth of the world – but also brought all this into action. Swami Vivekananda is a person of that stature ….” (Kritirupa: Vivekananda—Vivek Publications)
Rabindranath wrote in his essay ‘Bharatbarsher itihaaser dharay’: “The words Hindu and Muslim do not signify the same identity. Muslim is a religion. But Hindu is not a religion. Hindu is a nationalistic end result in Bharat.” Tagore with his fine sensibility and intellect could realise this. But most people thought Hindutva to mean ritualistic worship and high class spiritual philosophy.
Vivekananda is special because he regenerated not only Hindutva, but Hindu nationalism also. If people nurture discontent against foreign rule, anyone can ignite such simmering anger with a matchstick. But Vivekananda didn’t act as a matchstick, he rose in the hearts of the Bharatiyas the desire and craving for freedom. He actually prepared the bed of gun powder on which ‘Lal, Bal, Pal’, Aurobindo, Netaji, innumerable revolutionaries and Gandhiji could play the role of matchstick to ignite the mass. Subhas Chandra Bose had rightly observed in his book Taruner Swapno that Vivekananda’s words “Freedom, Freedom is the song of the soul” invigorate and mesmerise the Bharatiyas.
In 1902, Vivekananda died and in 1903 Tilak gave the call for banning foreign goods to bring an end to the policy of appealing to the foreign rules. Tilak’s attempts at celebrating ‘Shivaji and Ganapati’ festivals also can be cited as examples of Vivekananda’s influence on Hindu nationalism. Tilak’s clarion call “Swaraj is my birthright” seems to be an echo of Swamiji’s “Freedom…..soul.” Aurobindo acknowledged the influence of Vivekananda on his life and thoughts. In his journal Bande Mataram when he wrote “we want complete autonomy free from British control”, we seem to hear the echo of Swamiji’s call our “Freedom…soul.” That freedom doesn’t mean political freedom only but freedom means liberty for-own religions, own language, own culture – in a single word ‘Swadeshi’–only Vivekananda inculcated this thought in Bharatiyas. Many people got influenced by the thoughts of ‘Swadeshi’.
He had warned the then intellectuals as well as the common people against the tendency of imitating the west thus: On one side, New India is saying, ‘If we only adopt Western ideas, western language, western food, western dress and western manners, we shall be as strong as powerful as the ‘western nations’; on the other, old India is saying, “Fools! by imitations, others’ ideas never become one’s own – nothing, unless earned, is your own. Does the ass in the lion’s skins become the lion?….. (Selection from Swami Vivekananda – Advaita Ashram)
Probably, Rabindranath Tagore himself was influenced by this positive aspect of indigenousness of Vivekananda. That’s why he remarked, “If you want to know Bharat, study Vivekananda. In him everything is positive”. In 1923, Gandhiji said, “I have read the books of Swamiji. After reading his anthologies my patriotism has increased manifold.”
The extraordinary caliber of Vivekananda is that he gave a new dimension to the Hinduism. His ideas could overcome the Theo Centric thoughts of the medieval ages and touch the Anthrop Centric thoughts of the modern age. That Dharma is an integral part of our daily life, he could make explicit in his comment that, “life without Dharma is like curry without salt.” He tied Dharma to society and said, “A Dharma which cannot alleviate the grief of a widow or provide food to an orphan, is useless to me.” Not only that, he is the first person to preach “one who loves and serves mankind, actually serves God.”
Undoubtedly, Ramakrishna Mission, Bharat Sevashram Sangh, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and many such organisations are tirelessly serving people-selflessly, being inspired by this Anthrop Centric thoughts of Vivekananda and his mission of loving and serving the people. The awakening that the Indians experienced after Vivekananda’s speech at Chicago was based on Hinduism and by the Hindus, for the Hindus and of the Hindus.
(The writer is Kolkata based scholar)