by Raju Peddada
For my father and mother, who not only preached tolerance, but, had urged us repeatedly to read the works of Swami Vivekananda.
"We have no theory of evil. We call it ignorance."
—Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)
"To ask for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine in the heavens."
—John Henry Wright (1852-1908), Professor-classical scholar, Harvard University, to Vivekananda.
(Swans - June 4, 2012) Why do we drape the appellation "great" on blood-thirsty, narcissistic, ruling and warring elite? We are, unequivocally, a warring species that celebrates violence with titles and monuments. Our bestial heritage is not a recent revelation. And, against such savage odds, following the path of resistance, in the wisdom of inclusion, pacifism, and contemplation, becomes an edifying, if not a monumental, struggle. Few young men had been able to accomplish this solitary journey against the grating grain of our carnal impulses than Swami Vivekananda. The year 2013 will mark the 150th birth anniversary of this understated philosophical giant that had impacted the influencers of the previous two centuries, and continues to influence inquiring minds and the literary elite in the 21st century.
Literate societies, to sustain what we have, and to affect any change at all, must carry on vituperatively on doctrines that curtail and censure the freedom of thought, or the expression of it in any form, as they are antithetical to the very fiber of freedom. The noxious doctrines of exclusion, decreed way of life, and proselytizing against one another, are not the lubricants for creating harmony; contrarily, acceptance of pure, unaligned universal truths, and gathered wisdom of the ages, seems to be the only pill, if we are to survive as a species. This brings me to that redoubtable vector of wisdom: Swami Vivekananda.
No man in the history of civilization had affected contemplation, in the Western societies, as much as Vivekananda did. And, astoundingly, he did it without any theological browbeating, coercion, or the sword, but rather, with understated eloquence. His profundity influenced the harbingers like Leo Tolstoy, Nikola Tesla, J. D. Salinger, Sarah Bernhardt, John D. Rockefeller, Henry and William James, Aldous Huxley, Igor Stravinsky, Henry Miller, W. Somerset Maugham, Jane Adams, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mohandas Gandhi, and Henry David Thoreau, among many others, who over the generations had become the proponents of tolerance, secularism, and humanism.
Hinduism for the Westerners, before Vivekananda, was an odd mystical cultist manifestation of worship of the images and the statuary. "Idol worshipers!" Sinai desert "prophets" proclaimed, in diabolical indignation, wiping out the Greek and the Roman secularism across the Mediterranean. These prophets of the desert had given the world, one concept above all: "intolerance," in every form. They sold it as the "word of god, from the people of the book," and what followed were the xenophobic bloodbaths through the millennia, which continue today in the same exact geography, between the same races, over the same minute differences. "My way is the only way" had become the murderously obtuse credo for generations. "People of the book" is another salvo at other religions. Weren't the Nazis people of their book "Mein Kampf"? Gravity existed before Newton discovered it. This is exactly what the Vedanta postulates: That knowledge/wisdom predates every tool humanity had used to express or articulate it; book and words are tools, not necessarily wisdom.
I am convinced, despite the little I know, that wisdom can never be sold or proselytized -- wisdom is universal truths, the preponderance of natural diversity, and many paths to the one truth sought by those interested in it. Wisdom is an individual pursuit, and for that matter, is not about following, and believing with the blinders on, nor is it found in assembly. It is about understanding the grandeur of truth, in all its variances, one at a time. Wisdom is not found in some fervid cacophony; instead, it resides in silence, awaiting discovery. It propels our contemplation and cogitation, and it makes us reflect on our higher capacity, to discern the right from the wrong, as opposed to a suffocating theology, masquerading as wisdom, that attempts to thwart any inquiry by the individual.
Who was Vivekananda, and why is he more relevant than ever in these vicious times? He was born Narendra Nath Datta in Calcutta, in 1863, to an aristocratic family, and at an early age became the chief disciple of the 19th century saint, Sri Ramakrishna. Vivekananda was a precocious reader who became a Vedantist, one who pursued the deeper concepts within the universal truths, and the acceptance of such as the path to peace and progress for humanity.
Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University, after listening to Vivekananda speak, wrote to the chairman of the delegates at the Parliament of the World's Religions: "Here is a man who is more learned than all of our learned professors put together." The Art Institute was the venue, as a part of the World Columbian Exposition, where ironically, on the 11th of September, 1893, an unassuming young monk, robed in orange yet with a regal physiognomy, with no credentials except for that letter from Professor Wright, stepped up to the podium, over the bickering drone of delegates, and said: "Brothers and sisters of America!" What ensued was a moment of stunned silence, then a rapture of ovation that lasted almost four minutes. He gave a brief speech, and it culminated with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita that not only encapsulated, but epitomized the purpose and objective of the convention:
As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee!" and "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths that in the end lead to Me.
Major Newspapers from New York and Chicago besieged him with questions, some calling him the "cyclonic monk from India." The New York Herald referred to him as "... 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." Vivekananda blazed at that convention, and that 1893 parliament is simply remembered for this sole reason.
The Archbishop of Canterbury had boycotted the parliament, claiming that "attending it would affirm the equality of the other intended members and the parity of their position and claims... the Christian religion being the one and only religion." The Turkish Sultan had also deprecated the gathering on behalf of Islam. Before Vivekananda spoke that day, he was preceded by Reverend Barrows, one of the Christian clerics, before a predominantly Christian audience: "We believe that Christianity is to supplant all other religions, because it contains all the truth there is in them and much besides... and those who have the full light of the cross should bear brotherly hearts towards all who grope in the dimmer illumination." This type of condescension, from nearly all the Christian clerics, provoked not only defiant indignation but dismay and pity from Vivekananda: "We who have come from the east have sat here day after day and have been told in a patronizing way that we ought to accept Christianity because Christian nations are the most prosperous... we look about us and see England the most prosperous Christian nation in the world, with her foot on the neck of the two hundred and fifty million Asians... Christianity wins its prosperity by cutting the throats of its fellow men."
Denouncing the Muslim invasion of his homeland, he concluded: "... blood, and the sword are not for the Hindu, whose religion is based on the law of love" he also added "... purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world... and dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others is ignorance, which must be pitied." In many ways, he reluctantly admonished the religious, and the colonial expansionists.
Vivekananda introduced the Indian philosophy of Vedanta and Yoga to the west -- America and Europe -- elevating the interfaith awareness by offering the Hindu concept of coexistence. He delivered Sri Ramakrishna's precepts on "Advaita Vedanta," (non-dualism) meaning that all religions are true, and the service to man was the most effective worship of god."
What is Vedanta? Well, it would be like trying to explain the depth of the ocean, and everything that lurks below, while floating on the surface. However, here is the basic premise of Vedanta as professed by Swami Vivekananda:
The truth is one and universal, it cannot be limited to any country or race or individual. All religions of the world express the same truth in different languages and in different ways. Just as the sun is no one's property, so also truth is not confined to one particular religion or philosophy. No one can say that the sun is a Christian sun or a Hindu sun or Buddhist sun or a Jewish sun or an Islamic sun. Vedanta, rather, promulgates the harmony of religions. As different rivers originate from different sources but mingle in the ocean, losing their names and forms, so all the various religious paths that human beings take, through different tendencies, lead to God, or the truth... the three basic scriptures, evolving for over five thousand years, of Vedanta are, the Upanishads (the revealed truths), the Brahma sutras (the reasoned truths), and the Bhagawad Gita (the practical truths)... how does one manifest divinity within? Vedanta suggests four yogas (a) karma yoga -- the path of unselfish action; (b) jnana yoga -- the path of knowledge; (c) raja yoga -- the path of meditation; and (d) bhakti yoga -- the path of devotion. The word yoga signifies the union of the individual soul with the universal truth(s).
It is astonishing, yet not surprising to see the disparity between the Vedanta principles and the Abrahamic theology, which is replete with deprecating innuendos, especially against the religions of the east. It is a wonder how these religions became as big as they are. Is it the lack of contemplation and discernment, or is it that primal urge to hate and kill? Not once in the 1000-plus pages of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, introduced by Aldous Huxley, or the 314 pages of this abridged, yet profound book, Vedanta: Voice of Freedom, by Swami Vivekananda and edited, introduced, and prefaced by Swami Chetanananda, Christopher Isherwood, and Huston Smith, did I find one disparaging or reductionist phrase on any religion, particularly of the west. What I had discovered was the profundity of inclusion, tolerance, and understanding.
Lisa Miller wrote a prescient editorial in Newsweek a few months ago titled "We Are All Hindus Now," highlighting the mainstream issue that the American society had moved closer to a spiritual world that mirrors the central premise and the principles of the Vedanta philosophy. Americans had acquired a global view that is parallel with the principle expressed in the ancient Rig Veda: "Truth is one, but the sages speak of it by many names." Sri Aurobindo, another great contemporary of Vivekananda, offers this: "Indian religion has always felt that since the minds, the temperaments, and the intellectual affinities of men are unlimited in their variety, a perfect liberty of thought and worship must be allowed to the individual in his approach to the infinite." In fact, the personalized pathways to the divine resonate with the Western mentality of personal autonomy and freedom of choice.
Thanks to Vivekananda's example, there are no Vedic proselytizers in the media shouting "Give up your intolerant and insecure god and you will be saved... convert to Hinduism!" Ironically, the perfect analogy is that of the IT professional, who as a Vedantist offers this: "Here's the information (wisdom) we have gathered over 6000 years, and here are some practices that can make you accomplish more, feel deeper, and more fulfilled as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, and a secular individual." Vedanta philosophy, as taught by Vivekananda, has the capacity to strengthen a person's relationship to his native faith, rather than annihilate it. If this is not right, I really don't know what would be good in the 21st century for humanity. Today, Swami Vivekananda's message of Vedanta philosophy carries more relevance and weight than at any other time.
Vedanta: Voice of Freedom by Swami Vivekananda
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna - introduced by Aldous Huxley
Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
American Veda by Philip Goldberg
God Against the Gods by Jonathan Kirsch
Abraham's Curse: Violence in Judaism, Christianity & Islam by Bruce Chilton
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)