SWAMI VIVEKANANDA — A Vital Link in a Crucial Chain

Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within, by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy – by one or more or all of these – and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.


Nineteenth century was a momentous period in world history. European renaissance, which started in the sixteenth century, had led to impressive developments in science and technology, the industrial revolution, unprecedented prosperity, and the capacity to colonize the rest of the world. The euphoria and confidence generated by this enormous success had convinced the western world that they had everything to teach, and nothing to learn from the rest of the world. India had the image of a poor illiterate country peopled by a primitive superstitious population that worshipped hundred of gods and performed meaningless rituals. But all this was to change. In retrospect, it seems there was a divine design at work, not necessarily to give India a new image, but to make the world benefit from the treasure that India had and the rest of the world was going to need very soon.


Not a solution to all problems

The pace and extent of changes engineered by science and technology had convinced the world that we at last had the tool that will eventually solve all the problems of the world. While science and technology did bring untold physical comforts, rapid transport and instant communication, the problems of human existence that impelled Gautama Buddha to leave home more than two thousand years ago continued to plague mankind. Since science was based on the powers of reason, reason was pressed into service to find solutions to inequality, injustice and exploitation. Based on reason, thinkers came up with enlightened systems of education and government, and humanism was projected as a rational substitute for religion. But none of these efforts succeeded in reducing one bit the miseries of mankind. Finally, the countries that had benefited the most from scientific progress realized the limitations of science. Around the middle of the twentieth century, the youth of these countries rebelled. Supersaturated with material comforts, they discovered that the happiness brought by these comforts does not last long, and leaves a void in life that cannot be filled by more of the same. Many of them voluntarily gave up these comforts, and started looking for a deeper meaning in their lives. In their search for an alternative way of looking at life, they turned to India. The spiritually starved world rediscovered the wisdom that has the key to lasting mental peace and fulfillment. The wisdom was ancient but of perennial value, and it was available in a form relevant to the modern world because work on that had also started in the nineteenth century.


Destiny starts unfolding

The work of making the western world conscious of eastern wisdom, and providing it to the modern world in the English language had also begun by the nineteenth century. The beginning of this process may be traced to Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886). He demonstrated through his life that the Divine may be approached successfully through many paths, thus laying the foundations of what is currently referred to as inter-faith dialogue. He did not just preach it as a grand idea; he demonstrated its validity through practice. But his surface personality was not suitable for carrying this message to the world. For that he got a worthy instrument in his disciple, Narendranath, now better known as Swami Vivekananda, who had gone pretty far in the modern system of education, had a very good command over the English language, was very intelligent, and had tremendous reserves of energy, besides of course, his phenomenal spiritual capacity. Narendranath and Sri Ramakrishna were brought in contact through the ‘accidental’ absence of a singer that led to the 18-year old Narendranath being invited as a substitute. Sri Ramakrishna apparently knew that the ‘accident’ was only meant to bring the two together, and therefore asked Narendranath, whom he affectionately called Naren, to visit him at Dakshineshwar. What made this rather westernized rational, critical and sharp teenager actually take the trouble of going to meet an unlettered 45-year old sage was another ‘accident’. Naren had been told by none other than his British teacher of the English language, Mr. Hastie, that if he wanted to witness the state of blissful trance described by William Wordsworth in his poem Excursion, he should see Sri Ramakrishna. These apparently trivial incidents led to one of the most fruitful and celebrated master-disciple relationships: strange are the ways by which destiny fulfills itself. As Sri Aurobindo says in Savitri (Book 6, Canto 2):

This world was not built with random bricks of chance,

A blind god is not destiny’s architect;

A conscious power has drawn the plan of life,

There is a meaning in each curve and line.


Sweet are the uses of adversity

In 1884, Narendranath’s father passed away rather suddenly.  People to whom he owed money duly turned up with their claims, whereas those towards whom he had been so generous made themselves scarce.  The result was that the once affluent family was reduced to abject poverty.  Young Narendranath, just 21, started looking for a job to support the family.  He was a teacher, a translator, and much else for brief periods, but a steady job defied him.  In a fit of desperation he approached Sri Ramakrishna to appeal to Mother Kali for help.  The master told him to approach the goddess directly.  When Narendranath was in the Kali’s temple, he forgot what he had gone there for: he asked only for enlightenment.  He went again, and yet again, but the story was repeated every time that he went.  He now knew what Sri Ramakrishna had known all along.  He was not meant to find a job and look after the physical needs of his family.  He was made for higher things:  his mission in life was to discover the Truth, and share it with humanity.  By the time Sri Ramakrishna passed away in 1886, Naren had spent five years under his guidance.  But in these few years he had been transformed from a doubting young intellectual into an enlightened seer who knew his true Self and his Divine duty in life. Naren was now Swami Vivekananda.


The national pilgrimage

Soon the leadership qualities of Vivekananda came to the fore and he decided to go round the country as a parivrajaka.  He traveled the length and breadth of the country, studying the country, waking up his countrymen, and inspiring many of them to became disciples and devotees.  He mixed with all, ignoring considerations of caste, creed and religion, thereby setting an example of universal brotherhood through his own actions. He was not a philosopher living in an ivory tower, but a highly sensitive person with a great deal of compassion for, or rather devotion to, the poor and the oppressed: he worshipped them as Narayana, finding no difficulty in seeing them as manifestations of the Divine.  He traveled from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.  At Kanyakumari he swam over to a rock away from the mainland and sat in meditation there.  On this rock, now known as Vivekananda Rock, Swamiji planned out his mission.  He had to carry the wisdom of the East to the West.


The overseas pilgrimage

Swami Vivekananda set sail for America from Bombay on 31 May 1893.  The timing was dictated by vague information that there was going to be a grand Parliament of Religions at Chicago that year.  The amazing part of the journey was that he had neither been invited to the conference nor had he submitted any paper.  He was carrying very little money with him, and no arrangement had been made for his stay there.  When he reached Chicago, he discovered that the conference was still two months away, that only speakers with proper credentials would be allowed to speak, and that the schedule of the conference had been worked out well in advance.  But Swamiji had a strong resolve, presence of mind, and most importantly, God was with him.  He moved to Boston, which he was told, was cheaper than Chicago.  He discovered hosts among total strangers who were first attracted by his charisma and unusual attire, and then impressed by his scholarship, simplicity and sincerity.  Regarding his attendance at the Parliament of Religions, it so happened that in Boston, Prof. Wright, who taught Greek at the Harvard University, got drawn to Swamiji.  He wrote to the organizers of the Parliament, “Here is a man more learned than all our learned professors put together”.  If something has to happen, God finds His instruments.  Prof. Wright became the instrument to secure Swamiji a slot at the Parliament.  Swamiji’s first address to the Parliament on 11 September 1893, which began with the five immortal magic words, “Brothers and Sisters of America”, was a resounding success.  After that he spoke in the Parliament four more times.  His speech was always eagerly awaited.  The organizers used to schedule it towards the end of the day to ensure that the delegates will attend the conference throughout the day to be able to listen to him.  His success at the Parliament won him many friends and admirers, and now it was easy for him to spend more time in USA.  He spent about three years there, speaking extensively.  He spoke from the heart, and touched hearts.  People with personal problems felt as if he was speaking to them, about them, and got solace and solutions from what he spoke.  From USA, he moved to UK, and the story was repeated there.  After an extensive tour in UK and a short tour through the rest of Europe, Swamiji finally returned to India in January 1897.  He was accompanied by three of his British disciples, Mr. and Mrs. Sevier and Mr. Goodwin.  Mr. and Mrs. Sevier financed the establishment of Advaita Ashram.  Mr. Goodwin was an excellent stenographer, and the large number of speeches of Swamiji that are available in print today are due to the hard work of this single man.


The son returns to the soil

While spending time in the affluent West, Swami Vivekananda never forgot the poverty and backwardness of India.  The foreign tour only made his resolve to do something for his Motherland stronger, and he picked up some ideas of good organization from the West to help him achieve his aims.  In his Motherland, Swamiji received a rousing reception everywhere he went.  When he reached Calcutta, he decided to revitalize the Ramakrishna Math and Mission.  In spite of some opposition, he appealed to his brother monks to not just adore God but also serve man.  By joining monasticism and social service, Swami Vivekananda made history.  The mission accomplished, he was now ready to leave the body. To leave the body, he chose 4 July 1902 – the independence day of USA.  On the last day, he held a 3-hour class on Sanskrit grammar for his disciples, went out for a long walk, and discussed many things with a brother monk.  In the evening, he sat in his room for meditation.  After an hour he lay down.  A few minutes after 9 p.m., he left his body at age 39. In this short life, he taught the West the secrets of the Spirit, and he taught India not to disregard matter: matter is also a manifestation of the Divine.

The year 1893

The year 1893, in which Swami Vivekananda delivered his famous speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, was also the year in which Sri Aurobindo returned to India after fourteen years of stay in England.  The symbolic significance of this coincidence possibly was that Sri Aurobindo was to continue the mission from the point where Swami Vivekananda left it.  Swami Vivekananda left his body in 1902, and appeared a few years later in a vision that Sri Aurobindo had in Alipur jail.  Sri Aurobindo kept hearing the voice of Swami Vivekananda in jail for two weeks.  “The voice spoke only on a special and limited but very important field of spiritual experience and it ceased as soon as it finished saying all that it had to say on the subject”, wrote Sri Aurobindo.  It seems Sri Aurobindo received clues to his mission in life from this communication.  There is a remarkable continuity of thought from Swami Vivekananda to Sri Aurobindo.  Moreover, by traveling extensively, Swami Vivekananda had already created receptivity for ancient Indian wisdom in the West. That is perhaps one reason why, although Sri Aurobindo did not leave Pondicherry for even a day after going there in 1910, his influence spread all over the world. Although Sri Aurobindo did not travel to the West to preach, the Mother came from the West to join him.  This facilitated, first, the joining of the best of the East with the best of the West. Secondly, it made it possible for Sri Aurobindo to concentrate on the inner work, and for the Mother on the outer work.  Thus the two together could do what it is impossible to accomplish with one body.


The very same year 1893 was also the year in which was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh, who was destined to become Swami Yogananda Pramahansa and spend more than 30 years in USA, from 1920 through 1952, in a way continuing the work that Swami Vivekananda had initiated in 1893. Incidentally, 1920 was also the year in which Sri Aurobindo brought to a close the publication of the monthly journal, Arya, which had started in 1914 and is the source of many of his major works. And, in 1920 also began the remarkable spiritual collaboration between Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.


The chain continues

Thanks to Swami Vivekananda and the seers and spiritual masters who have followed him, the West did not have to reinvent the wheel when it was disillusioned with the marvels of science and technology and the powers of the human mind. Scientific progress was an important development because it prepared mankind for the next stage of human evolution. Only when the powers of the mind have been exhausted can one be ready for going beyond the mind. As Sri Aurobindo has discussed in The Human Cycle, it is only after reaping the benefits of the age of reason does society move to the subjective age that goes beyond reason, to the possibilities of the supra-rational intuition. Sri Aurobindo left the body in 1950, and the Mother in 1973, but the work continues. India has been producing spiritual masters with a global appeal. Some, such as Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, have spent long periods outside India; many more have retained their base in India, one of the latest among them being Sri Sri Ravi Shankar ji.


Closing thoughts

Swami Vivekananda travelled extensively, and played a pioneering role in correcting in the West the then-prevalent poor image of Indian culture.  He made large receptive audiences in the West aware of the rich treasure of immense value to mankind, which Indian spiritual traditions had preserved over the millennia.  On the home-front, Swami Vivekananda woke up his countrymen from centuries of slumber, made them aware of their potential, and goaded them to work towards it realization instead of just hoping for things to happen. Once Swami Vivekananda had set the trend, many other seers and gurus have continued this two-fold mission. On one hand, they have tried to make India aware of its present misery and past glory, and have injected a fresh dose of dynamic energy in their countrymen so that they wake up to their true potential. On the other hand, they have made available to the west ancient Indian wisdom in a form that can be understood by the modern man.


There are a few common threads that unite the teachings of the spiritual masters of the recent past. First, they have gone to the spiritual core of religions: at that level there is very little difference between religions. They have distanced themselves from rituals and ceremonies, and instead concentrated on an inner change that should get reflected in our outer life, should ennoble our worldly life. Thus, they have shown the way to human unity. The way lies in moving away from conventional organized religions towards spirituality. Those who believe in an all-pervasive higher Power, and depend upon It for guidance and protection, but do not wish to be affiliated to any religion is a substantial and rapidly growing population in the world. Moving away from religions to spirituality is the way to the glorious future that is the destiny of the human race as it approaches the next evolutionary leap in consciousness. Thus the spiritual masters of the recent past have had a futuristic vision. Secondly, they have emphasized the need for bringing spirituality into worldly life. They have corrected the distortion that had got deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche that spirituality requires total renunciation of worldly life. Sri Aurobindo made a powerful case for a life-affirming version of spirituality by asserting that since the world is a manifestation of the Divine, the world and worldly life should not be rejected but transformed to befit the One that they manifest. Mahatma Gandhi did the same by example. He brought spirituality into intense political activity, activity that included wresting freedom from a colonial power through non-violent means – a feat unprecedented in human history. Indians have the privilege of belonging to the land that has generated the wisdom that the world is thirsty for today, and the land that continues to give birth to the masters who continue to refresh and update that wisdom. The privilege also brings with it the responsibility to prove worthy of our heritage through our thoughts, words and deeds instead of being satisfied with being just the exporters of our most glorious national product.

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P.S. Starting this article with Sri Ramakrishna is an arbitrary choice – one may go further back and start with, say, Maharshi Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883). Further, the seers and sages named here do not exhaust all the participants in the historical process outlined here. The point being made here is that historical developments point to a divine plan at work, and that the plan has been executed by several worthy instruments of the Divine, only some of whom have been mentioned here. All these instruments were too great to be affected by their inclusion or otherwise in this humble offering on the occasion of Swami Vivekananda’s 150th birth anniversary.

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(Based partly on Essays on Yoga by Ramesh Bijlani, published by Swami Vivekananda Yoga Prakashana, Bangalore, 2011)

Author: Ramesh

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