Many years ago a young penniless man with barely a possession in the world sailed out to the West, armed only with the intense desire that the spiritual wisdom of his motherland should be known and respected throughout the world. He was the first Hindu in the modern age to travel to the West and give the message of Hinduism to an international audience. He became the most famous Indian of his era and in his short lifetime of 39 years planted the seeds of a new era of global spirituality. Yoga practitioners around the world celebrate his first journey to the West as the birth of yoga as an international phenomenon.
This man is as Swami Vivekananda, and 12th January this year marked 150 years since his birth. His life is a great inspiration – and even a glimpse of his image dispels fear and instils hope.
Vivekananda was born in Calcutta. His childhood name was Narendra. He had a sharp mind and was also a strong athlete. He was not very religious in the usual sense of the word. He had questions and wanted answers. This led him to search far and wide for ideas about God, from all religions and teachers. But his scientific temperament would not let him believe what anybody told him. Doubts flooded his mind. Yet these doubts far from being a bad thing actually propelled him along his journey.
He used to go around to religious leaders with a simple question – “Have you seen God?” Most of them would avoid his question and start lecturing him about other things. But he would press them on the point, and finally get them to concede the truth; “No, I have not.”
One of Narendra’s schoolteachers advised him to visit Ramakrishna Paramhansa, a great saint who lived at the famous Dakshineshwar Kali Temple in Calcutta. Shri Ramakrishna’s life consisted almost solely of contemplation, devotion and meditation on God, which had led him to direct spiritual experience.
Narendra went to see him, and posed the regular question. Only this time the answer was different: “Yes I have.” Narendra expressed his disbelief. Ramakrishna continued, “Not only have I seen God, but I can show you God if you really wish.”
Narendra subsequently made Ramakrishna his Guru, and engaged in a study of the masses of ancient Hindu knowledge from both a scholarly and experiential perspective. Later he was given the name of Swami Vivekananda.
Swamiji travelled extensively around India and was shocked by what he saw. He saw the beauty of the ancient spirituality of the land still intact, but unimaginable poverty, poor health and social ills that rent his heart. He tried to mobilise the affluent classes to come to the aid of their fellow countrymen. Many people were impressed with Swami Vivekananda and slowly his following grew. He also set up the Ramakrishna Vedantic Mission.
Travels to the West
Swami Vivekananda journeyed to the West in 1893. There he spoke at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago. He was allocated only 5 minutes, but ended up speaking for much longer. By the time he finished, the audience were begging for more. He was invited to many places to give talks. For the first time, people in the West began to realise that there is something unique and different about the culture and religion of India, which provide spirituality beyond the cold confines of the organised and authoritarian creeds to which they were accustomed. Gradually he gathered a following in the West. The most notable of his followers was freedom fighter Sister Nivedita.
However he also met bitter hostility and resistance at the hands of some. The West was much more racist and religiously exclusive than it is now. There were many that hated the idea of a brown-skinned Indian giving talk on philosophy and spirituality in front of some of the best minds in their country. Stories slandering him would appear in newspapers, to try and reduce his growing influence. Swamiji later narrated that the more resistance he encountered, the more determined he became.
Restoring India’s Battered Confidence
Due to being in the midst of a colonial rule at the hands of a much more affluent and dominant country, many Hindu thinkers and activists in India had lost faith in their heritage and were blindly imitating the customs, culture and thought of Europe. Swamiji’s life had a deep impact on such Indians. Seeing his success in the West, they got a renewed sense of pride in Hinduism. A later Prime Minister of India declared, “We were at that time depressed at the state of our country, but Swami Vivekananda restored to us our lost dignity.”
It was Swamiji’s hope that society should combine the best spiritual traditions with the latest advancements in science and technology. The world should be rich both materially and spiritually. He wanted Hindus to set an example to the world, and be harbingers of a new age. His vision may yet be realised, with our efforts.