4th of July and the 11th of September – Two days that bring both hope and despair

4th of July marks the death anniversary of India’s great monk, Swami Vivekananda. It is also the 126th anniversary of American Independence from colonial rule. In a remarkable poem dedicated to Liberty, celebrating the event, the Swami had given a glimpse of his prodigious talent, not only as a writer of immaculate prose but also of beautiful poetry.

September 11, 2018, will mark the 125th and the 17th anniversary of two events that shook the earth in diametrically opposite ways.

It was on this date in the year 1893 that a young Indian monk rose to deliver his address to an entranced audience at the first World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Swami Vivekananda’s sublime opening words, addressing the audience as “sisters and brothers of America,” were remarkable in emphasising the common brotherhood of all the people who inhabit this world. Vivekananda thundered, “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilisations, and sent whole nations to despair.” 

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The response to his brief but powerfully delivered address was electrifying and it seemed as if the world would rise in unison to the call of the young monk that would “ring the death-knell of all fanaticism.”The orange-robed monk, devastatingly handsome to behold, and radiating the brilliance of the sun, was easily the most sought-after speaker at the Parliament of Religions. Before the Parliament concluded on 27th September, he had spoken several times on the great religions of the East emphasising their common theme of universality and tolerance.

Looking at the life of Vivekananda, born Narendra Nath Datta, one is struck by the fact that he did not come to Ramakrishna, his Guru until he was 20 years of age. The sudden death of his father and the economic troubles that followed drew him in despair to Dakshineswar, but his Guru would soon be gone, being struck down by throat cancer.

The disciple would suffer many more privations as the former admirers of Ramakrishna stopped supporting him and his fellow devotees. Vivekananda was 25 when he decided to become a wandering monk and during the next five years travelled the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, meeting people from all walks of life; discoursing with scholars; learning the fine points of different religions; developing a deep understanding of the social and cultural heritage of this ancient civilisation. Like the earlier Sakyamuni, he found suffering everywhere and resolved to work for and uplift the toiling masses.

In 1893, when he was 30 years old, he embarked on his first visit overseas, travelling via Japan, China and Canada to the United States where he would address the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. In the next four years, he travelled all over the US and Europe, meeting people and giving discourses on Advaita Vedanta, introducing his audiences to the great and vast philosophical treasures of India.

In the process, he developed quite an impressive entourage of followers and disciples, some of whom returned with him to India to work by his side. In 1897 he was back in Calcutta via Colombo, lecturing audiences en route. In the West, he would mainly talk about India’s great spiritual heritage, but in India, his concerns would be centred on social issues: caste and untouchability; elimination of poverty; universal modern education including a scientific temperament; and freedom from colonial rule.

On 1st May 1897, he founded the Ramakrishna Mission, an organization with a different agenda from that of the Ramakrishna Math that he had founded immediately after the death of his Guru in 1886. While the Math was essentially involved in the propagation of the message of Advaita Vedanta, the Mission would take up social work as its purpose. The volunteers of the Mission have rendered invaluable service during natural catastrophes like cyclones and floods, and during man-made disasters like famines and religious conflicts.

The Swami embarked on one more visit to the West in 1899, this time spending about six months in the US. Before returning to Calcutta in 1900, he stopped in France, Austria, Greece, Turkey and Egypt. Two years later, on 4th July 1902, he would be dead, not having completed 40 years on this earth.

The amount of work that this remarkable man packed into just 15 years is perhaps the reason that he died at such a young age. His peripatetic life, combined with the fire of his intellect would have taken a heavy toll of his physical self that eventually could not keep pace with the demands made on it. The institutions and the written body of work that he has left behind are the legacies of this brightest star in the Indian firmament.

But, within twenty years of his historic Chicago address, and hardly a decade after the untimely death of the Swami, the world was plunged into perhaps the most brutal conflict till then – the First World War – that claimed about 40 million casualties, and rendered even more destitute and homeless.

Barely twenty more years would pass and the world would witness an even bigger catastrophe in the Second World War that claimed an estimated 73 million casualties, demonstrating in the Nazi holocaust the depths of depravity that the human heart can descend to, and the even more devastating power of nuclear weapons that led to the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Stalin’s efforts to make “obsolete classes disappear” added another estimated 20 million to these numbers. The end of the Second World War would create new geographies, carving nations along religious and ethnic divides, bringing untold misery to vast numbers.

The cold war between the two superpowers would keep the world on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe, as each side vied with the other for maximum deterrence. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war has not diminished the threat. Conflicts have become endemic and new fires keep flaring in different parts of the globe. The earth is on a short fuse and its political leaders are prone to light it at the slightest provocation.

Exactly 108 years to the date of Swami Vivekananda’s address to the Chicago audience, the two towers of the World Trade Centre in New York would be reduced to molten rubble and ashes, resulting in about 3,000 deaths and more than 6,000 injured casualties. Far from ringing “the death knell of fanaticism” as hoped by the Swami, this reckless act by the Al Qaeda terrorists plunged the world into another long and bloody cycle of armed conflict that has resulted in the total destruction of Iraq, and Afghanistan, the two cradles of ancient civilisations.

The protracted civil war in Syria, and the wintering of the short-lived Arab spring, only continued further bloodshed and destruction. Seven years after the attack on New York, there is no remorse and the drums of self-righteousness are beating louder. Mutual suspicion and hatred for the others are pushing the world towards a cataclysm whose aftershocks will continue to reverberate for centuries to come.

India has forgotten Swami Vivekananda, and his memory is now confined to the various Maths and Ashrams that he founded, and some educational institutions run in his name. The 150th year of his birth anniversary in 2013 was marked by mere tokenism by the Manmohan Singh government and the society at large.

The government’s apathy was understandable for it had abandoned every tenet that was dear to the Swami, but the indifference of the common people is most disheartening. India and the world need the Swami’s message today perhaps more than what was required 125 years ago. The non-duality of Advaita that he believed in and spoke about has all but disappeared from the earth in a Sartrean nightmare in which “Hell is the other” and from where there is “No Exit.”

I am reminded of an anecdote from Vivekananda’s life. During his visit to Kashmir, distressed at the sight of destroyed temples and images of Hindu deities, he asked the Goddess in the Khir Bhawani temple how she had permitted the invaders to wreak such havoc. The Goddess appeared to him in a dream and said: “What does it matter if the invader destroys my temples and images? Tell me, do you protect me, or do I protect you?” 

The great apostle of non-dualistic Advaita was instantly cheered by this admonition and happily went his way. Today’s leaders, on the contrary, firmly believe that it is they who protect the gods.

July 4 and September 11 are two dates that bring both hope and despair to the mind. Liberty that was born on July 4 died on September 11, and the hope that was born on September 11 died on July 4. But the bringer of hope has been consigned to institutions while the forces of darkness are roaming unhindered, extinguishing the light of reason and plunging the earth into the deepest pit of despair.

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