On January 12th, 2013, it was 150 years that Swami Vivekananda was born. He needs no introduction. His is a household name in India and he is also well known in the west. The yearlong celebrations remind me that I, too, owe a lot to the Swami.
I had not come to India for spiritual reasons. Yes, I was interested in spirituality, but Hinduism seemed an obscure religion and I associated stereotypes like polytheism and caste system that I had heard already in school in Germany. Like many westerners, I was interested in Buddhism, but did not connect Buddhism with India, rather with Tibet or Japan. At that time I did not know that the British colonial masters had skilfully crafted this negative image of Hinduism, as they had realised that they could not subdue India, unless they break Indians away from their great culture.
I visited wildlife sanctuaries and travelled to Kanya Kumari. There, a little off the coast on a huge rock, is a memorial for Swami Vivekananda. I crossed over on a ferry. At a bookstall, I bought ‘Jnana Yoga’. I had not heard of Swami Vivekananda, but felt it would be sensible to learn about Indian thought while in India.
Swami Vivekananda had swum to this rock to meditate in December 1892. His guru, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, had died in Calcutta six years earlier. The young man had fire in his belly. He realised that his countrymen had fallen into torpor under British rule. He wanted to wake them up, give them back their self-respect and pride in their tradition.
On this rock, it dawned on him that he should participate at the World Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893, and represent Advaita Vedanta, one of the highest flowerings among the different Indian philosophical systems. Advaita Vedanta is explained in the Upanishads, the last part (anta) of the Vedas, and postulates that basically, everything is a unity (a-dwaita = not two) – a view to which modern science meanwhile also subscribes.
Swami Vivekananda went to Chicago. He had neither been invited, nor had he registered for the congress. The first night he slept at the railway station in Chicago, and then went to a residential area to beg for food. A well to do lady noticed the young Indian on the pavement from the window of her apartment and sent her servant to bring him in. She was greatly impressed by his personality and wisdom and had the right connections to get him the opportunity to give a presentation at the world congress.
On September 11th, 1893 he stood on the dais – a young man of 30, dressed in a silk robe, with a silk turban on his head – and began his talk, “Sisters and brothers of America”. He couldn’t continue to speak. Thunderous applause greeted him for several minutes. What had happened? “He was the only one who meant what he said”, a commentator explained it at that time.
This young man became world famous. He contributed significantly to the renaissance of Indian wisdom in India and in the west.
I studied ‘Jnana Yoga’ and it felt like breathing fresh air after having been confined in a sticky room. It was truly an eye-opener. Swami Vivekananda expressed clearly what I vaguely had felt to be true. For example he postulated that all is interconnected or rather: ONE. Everything in this creation including ourselves is permeated by the same great power, like waves are permeated by the same ocean. The waves may think that they are separate from the ocean as they have a distinct form and name. They may even cling to their (temporary) form and be afraid to lose it, but ultimately all the waves are nothing but the one great ocean and nothing is lost when their form is lost. Similarly, though we may consider ourselves as separate from others and cling to our impermanent person, in truth we are the one consciousness and nothing of substance is lost when form and name are lost.
Further Swami Vivekananda claimed that the so called reality is not really real. It is a sense deception, in a similar way, as at dusk a rope is mistakenly seen as a snake, even though in reality there is only a rope. Truly true, he claimed, is our inner being that permeates everything and makes all appearances miraculously shine forth. It is infinite, eternal. It is not an object that can be seen with the eyes or thought of with the mind. It is however possible to be it. Rather, we are it already. All is this oneness, this consciousness.
Vivekananda did not hesitate to tell his American audience frankly, what he thought about their society. He considered it hypocritical. ‘What is the use of your proud talk about your society, if truth has no place in it?’ he asked. ‘What you call progress is according to me nothing more than the multiplication of desires. And if one thing is clear to me it is this: desires bring misery.’
He also was critical of religion. He admitted that it may be helpful for weak people, but asked, ‘Are not all prevalent religious practises weakening and therefore wrong?’ He wanted strong human beings who worship the spirit by the spirit. His ideal he expressed in a few words: ‘to preach unto mankind their divinity and how to make it manifest in every movement of life.’ What bold thoughts and what clarity!
Swami Vivekananda was given a triumphal welcome when he came back home. Yet his health had suffered during his early wanderings across India, and he died in 1902, only nine years after his spectacular success at the congress.
Nevertheless, Swami Vivekananda achieved great things He restored pride in India’s wisdom and put the west philosophically and socially into place. He explained in clear and simple terms why Indians can be proud of their tradition which is based on deep insights of the rishis and is meant to be experienced and expressed in life. It is not about confessing a creed. It is not about blind belief in dogmas. “It is as much a science as any in the world”, the Swami had declared. It is about enquiry, analysis and finally intimately knowing and directly experiencing the truth. “Arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached!”