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Home » Swami Vivekananda brought the East and the West together

Swami Vivekananda brought the East and the West together

by Amb. Sandeep Chakravorty
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Swami vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda’s emphasis on universal humanism offers a path through our increasingly conflict-ridden world. A tribute by India’s envoy in Indonesia.

Swamiji Vivekananda’s role at the Parliament of the World’s Religions was a game-changer, particularly in the West. He introduced Hinduism as a major world religion and highlighted its universal values, still relevant today.

Always stressing the universal and humanistic side of the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism, as well as belief in service rather than dogma, Swamiji infused vigor into Hindu thought, placing less emphasis on the prevailing pacifism.

Hindus and Hinduism are endemic to the land we know as India. The religion defines India and its people and in turn, is defined by it. Every part of India, every grain of sand, every season, and every raindrop has contributed to this body of thought, belief, practice, and rituals since time immemorial.

Our philosophy and ideology belong to our land, water, groves, and mountain ranges. Our Shiva resides in Mount Kailash, our Krishna frolicked in the groves of Gokula, and our Rama roamed the forests of Dandaka or Kishkinda. It is possible to connect our gods and our stories to our land.

India is a land of many faiths. Hinduism thrived there, welcoming others like Christianity and Islam. It even gave birth to Buddhism and Jainism. While the West missed out, Eastern traditions embraced India’s rich religious mix.

Westerners like Marco Polo and Vasco da Gama explored India, but mainly for trade. They often viewed India’s spirituality as inferior. Centuries ago, Christian missionaries arrived with merchants, aiming to ‘save’ Indians. One, William Carey, became amazed by Hindu scriptures and translated them into English. He established in 1816 the Serampore College, the oldest University College in India.

The West saw India as a spiritual wilderness largely not permeated by the wisdom of the Church. Into this firmament entered Swamiji with his vision and wisdom for the spiritual awakening of India; he was also perhaps the first to plant the seeds of India’s national movement.

Vivekananda wasn’t just India’s spiritual envoy; he was a modern saint. He promoted Hinduism globally, but his message was for all — a universal faith based on unity and Vedanta’s values.

Today, it is fashionable to talk of peace, understanding, compassion, tolerance, human rights, civil rights, and humanism. But these words and their meanings were not in currency then. Colonization was at its peak, and the world powers were merrily busy subjugating people to exploit them, and they were happy to use religion as a weapon of colonization. It is this context and scenario in which we have to evaluate Swamiji, his vision, and his impact.

Surprisingly, the leader of the Church of England refused to participate in the first Parliament of the World’s Religions, highlighting the religious tensions of the time. Held alongside a celebration of western progress, the Parliament aimed to broaden perspectives beyond science and technology.

The September 11, 1893 Parliament of Religions, the first attempt to gather representatives of world religions, aimed to foster interfaith dialogue. Even the great Swami Vivekananda felt a surge of nerves. Unlike others who delivered prepared speeches, he faced the daunting crowd at Chicago’s Columbus Hall with initial stage fright.

Swami Vivekanand Old Image

Swamiji proposed a cultural exchange: India’s spiritual wisdom (Vedanta) for Western science and technology to uplift India. He saw science and Vedanta as complementary paths, both seeking understanding within their own frameworks. This vision solidified his role as a bridge between Eastern and Western thought.

Clad in ochre robes, Swami Vivekananda’s powerful presence magnetized the audience. Introduced by Dr. Barrows, he rose, no notes in hand, and a hush fell. Anticipation hung heavy as all eyes turned toward him, eager to hear his words.
With a bow, he addressed the crowd as ‘Sisters and Brothers of America.’ His heartfelt greeting ignited a thunderous applause that echoed through the hall for nearly two minutes. Resuming with ease, Swami Vivekananda captivated them all. Unlike others promoting their own faiths, his message transcended religion, advocating a universal path.
His electrifying inaugural address, dubbed the most popular of the day, made him an instant American celebrity. Despite later confessing his initial nervousness to a disciple, Swami Vivekananda remained remarkably humble. He even downplayed the groundbreaking impact of his speech on both the American public and press, noting his dislike for fame.
The Herald declared Vivekananda the Parliament’s greatest figure, highlighting the shift in western views. Swamiji’s message resonated in the West for two reasons: unity (between humans, nature, and religions) and service. Drawing from Vedanta philosophy, he preached oneness with all beings, urging love and service to others as a path to the divine, a truth Sri Ramakrishna had realized.

Swamiji did not consider science as antithetical to religion. He showed that religion is as scientific as science itself; religion is the ‘science of consciousness.’
Swamiji’s Western lectures challenged religious intolerance and promoted interfaith dialogue, as well as self-reflection. While seen as a champion of Hinduism against Christianity and British rule, he also challenged Hinduism, questioning restrictive social practices.
What is the relevance of Swami ji’s teachings today? His emphasis on universal humanism offers a path through our increasingly interconnected yet conflict-ridden world. Additionally, his teachings on ethical living and environmental responsibility provide a valuable compass in the face of consumerism and climate change.
In his letter addressed to Sister Nivedita, he said, “We are like cattle, driven to the slaughter house, hastily nibbling a bit of grass on roadside, as they are driven along under the whip.” Raising a question about the entire process of human enslavement by a small group of predators, Swamiji asserted the power of the human mind when he said, “We hasten the growth of things by artificial means. Why cannot we hasten the growth of man?”
Swami Vivekananda emphasized self-improvement. We must control desires, not be controlled by them. Like a fool mistaking a crocodile for a log, chasing worldly things won’t bring us closer to our true potential. It’s the struggle to rise above limitations, internal and external, that defines our humanity.
Swamiji challenged Darwinian evolution with the Indian idea of involution. He saw humanity not as a linear climb but as the unfolding of our inherent potential. Every being, from an ant to a saint, is on this journey of self-realization, already possessing the potential for divinity. This challenged Western views that saw non-Europeans as needing ‘civilization.’
Explaining identity and difference as two sides of the same coin in his Bhakti Yoga, Swamiji explained that there may be millions of radii converging towards the same center in the sun. The farther the radii are from the center, the greater the distance between any two. But, as they all meet at the center, all differences vanish.
Swamiji sounded a clarion call for global fellowship when he spoke on the power of the mind: “Your mind, my mind, all these little minds are fragments of that universal mind, little waves in the ocean, and on account of this continuity, we can convey our thoughts directly to one another.”
Swami Vivekananda envisioned a world where religions embraced their strengths: Hinduism’s spirituality, Buddhism’s compassion, Christianity’s service, and Islam’s brotherhood. He rejected narrow nationalism, stating his mission was universal. Globalization, he believed, opened the path for India’s spiritual message to spread globally, similar to empires paving the way for Christianity. However, his aim wasn’t conversion but a call for individuals to reconnect with their own faith.
He also proposed a cultural exchange: India’s spiritual wisdom (Vedanta) for Western science and technology to uplift India. He saw science and Vedanta as complementary paths, both seeking understanding within their own frameworks. This vision solidified his role as a bridge between Eastern and Western thought.
Swamiji’s travels abroad opened his eyes to India’s beauty. He saw wonders in the West, but most importantly, the underlying unity of humanity. This experience ignited his concern for Indian women, an issue that demanded his attention upon his return. He declared, “There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly on only one wing.”
125 years after Swamiji’s powerful message, it’s vital to remember its relevance in a rapidly changing world. Globalization and industry have brought both progress and peril, extinction, discord, and a loss of rich diversity. As we stand at a crossroads, Swamiji’s life, dedicated to bridging divides, offers a powerful compass. Let this anniversary be a call to action, urging us to forge harmony between science and spirit, nature and progress, and self and others. Only then can we avert a self-inflicted crisis.

This is a condensed version of the speech delivered by Sandeep Chakravorty, then Consul General of India in New York, to mark the 125th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s epoch-making address at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago.

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