A Different 9/11: How Vivekananda Won Americans’ Hearts and Minds?
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attack on the World Trade Centre in which thousands of Americans died, the American people were in grief. On the same day, the Taliban were in a celebratory mood in Kabul having ‘defeated’ the Americans in a bloody war that lasted two decades. What stood out was the fanaticism and barbarity of a jihadi group that promises to take the country back to medieval times.

There was a different 9/11 which we ought to remember – 11 September 1893. On that day Swami Vivekananda addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Opening his address with the salutation “Brothers and Sisters of America”, he delivered a message of hope which rings to this day. He said:

“I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”1

Vivekananda’s 1893 speech at the World Parliament Of Religions in Chicago resonates even today. He talked about the Hindu religion and its basic tenets. He analysed the strengths and shortcomings of other world religions. He denounced superstitions, rigidities in all regions. He preached universal brotherhood, holding that all religions in their essentials are the same. It is the non-essentials that is the problem.

After participating in the World parliament of religions, Vivekananda travelled across America and delivered a large number of lectures. His lectures were well attended and well covered in the media. There was a lot of curiosity about this young 30-year-old ‘Hindoo monk’ from the ‘antipodes’ and the strange teachings of his religion. In his ‘packed to the doors’ public lectures, Vivekananda sought to convey the essentials of Hindu religion (including Buddhism) to his audience and answered their searching questions about the Hindu way of life and Hindu customs. He spoke extensively on India’s contribution to world thought and culture. He impressed his audience with his encyclopaedic knowledge, intelligence, demeanour, command of the English language, and above all his sincerity and warm-heartedness.

We get an idea of the impact the Swami made on American society from the coverage of Swami’s lecture from a report filed by Northampton Daily Herald, April 16, 1894. It wrote:

“But to see and hear Swami Vivekananda is an opportunity which no intelligent fair-minded American ought to miss if one cares to see a shining light of the very finest product of the mental, moral and spiritual culture of a race which reckons its age by thousands where we count ours by hundreds and is richly worth the study of every mind.”2

In the predominantly Christian society of America, the Swami was not shy of talking about the violence and intolerance of Christianity and lamented that Christian societies had forgotten to practice the true preachings of Christ. He criticised the use of money and material incentives used by missionaries to convert the gullible masses. He was however certain that despite their harmful and deplorable activities, the missionaries had made only an ‘imperceptible’ impact on the Indian society generally.

Often his talks were entirely spiritual, meant to familiarize and educate the audiences about the essentials of Hinduism. He spoke about reincarnation, karma, soul, the divinity of every human being, yoga and meditation.

He sought to address the misgivings the people in American society had about the Hindu religion and took up the subjects like caste, miracles, place of women, education, superstition and the like. He never pulled his punches while talking about the distortions in Hindu society. But he stuck to his deep faith in the core teachings of Hinduism.

He was extremely critical of the materialism that held sway in western societies. He looked down upon the ‘dollar worship’ prevalent in western societies. On America he was candid:

"This is a great land," he said, "but I wouldn't like to live here. Americans think too much of money. They give it preference over everything else. Your people have much to learn. When your nation is as old as ours you will be wiser.”3

The media coverage of his lectures was interesting as it was extensive. His dress, the manner of delivery was widely commented upon.

The newspapers of the time quoted him extensively on his views on a variety of subjects. Here are a few samples from the media coverage of the time.

Caste

He was questioned on casteism in Hindu society wherever he went. He spoke extensively on the subject. Brooklyn Standard Union, April 8, 1895, quoted him as saying:

“Swami Vivekananda's talk on caste was most comprehensive and interesting. He said it was not a granted [graded] system of classes, but that each caste thought itself to be superior to all the others. He said it was a trade guild and not a religious institution.”4

Buddhism

Swami Vivekananda was passionate about Buddhism, describing it as Indian religion. Some even took him as a Buddhist monk! Brooklyn Standard Union, February 4, 1895, quoted him on the subject:

"Every one of Buddha's teachings is founded in the Vedantas. He was one of those monks who wanted to bring out the truths, hidden in those books and in the forest monasteries. I do not believe that the world is ready for them even now; it still wants those lower religions, which teach of a personal God.”5

India's Gift To The World

The Swami was passionate about Hinduism's greatness. He dwelt at length on the contribution of Hindusim to the world. Brooklyn Standard Union, February 27, 1895, quoted him extensively on the subject:

“…the triumph of modern science — mixed mathematics — were all invented in India, just so much as the ten numerals, the very cornerstone of all present civilization, were discovered in India, and are in reality, Sanskrit words…."

“…In philosophy, we are even now head and shoulders above any other nation, as Schopenhauer, the great German philosopher, has confessed…”

“…In music India gave to the world her system of notation, with the seven cardinal notes and the diatonic scale, all of which we enjoyed as early as 350 B.C….”

“…India has given to the world the fables of Aesop, which were copied by Aesop from an old Sanskrit book; it has given the Arabian Nights, yes, even the story of Cinderella and the Bean Stalks….”6

How has the world treated India?

The same newspaper quoted from his lecture:

"And now, what has the world given to India in return for all that? Nothing but nullification [vilification] and curse and contempt. The world waded in her children's life-blood, it reduced India to poverty and her sons and daughters to slavery…Our only fault is that we cannot: fight to conquer; but we trust in the eternity of truth. India's message to the world is first of all, her blessing; she is returning good for the evil…

"It matters not as long as India is true to herself and to her religion. But a blow has been struck at her heart by this awful godless West when she sends hypocrisy and atheism into her midst..”7

Multiple gods in Hinduism

“What of these dualistic theories of twenty gods, thirty gods? It does not matter. They all had the one truth, that this false individuality must go.8

From America, Swami Vivekananda travelled to Europe where he won more admirers and followers. The Swami made an indelible impression on western society. He was a one-man army. His messages were forceful candid and sincere. The underlying message was a universal brotherhood that flows from the core teachings of Vedanta. He attacked bigotry and intolerance. But he also said that those who practised intolerance had limited shelf life. It is the kinder races that had survived. He succeeded in establishing and conveying to the audiences the high philosophical underpinning of the Hindu religion and showed that it was in no way inferior to any religion.

Brooklyn Standard Union, February 27, 1895 quoted the Swami as saying:

“Lastly, India's message is, that calm goodness, patience and gentleness will ultimately triumph. For where are the Greeks, the onetime masters of the earth? They are gone. Where are the Romans, at the tramp of whose cohorts the world trembled? Passed away. Where are the Arabs, who in fifty years had carried their banners from the Atlantic to the Pacific? and where are the Spaniards, the cruel murderers of millions of men? Both races are nearly extinct; but thanks to the morality of her children, the kinder race will never perish, and she will yet see the hour of her triumph.”9

Herein lies a message for the Taliban and the world.

Endnotes:
  1. “Swami Vivekananda Representative of Hindus Parliament of Religions Columbian Exposition, Chicago World Fair 11 September 1893.”, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 2.
  2. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 2. https://instapdf.in/complete-works-of-swami-vivekananda-book-vol-1/
  3. Quoted in Bay City Daily Tribune, March 21, 1894, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 2.
  4. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 2.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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