Eleventh September of 1893 the city of Chicago in the United States observed a new phenomenon that is still shaking the heart and mind of millions of people even today. A thirty years old Indian Hindu monk addressed the distinguished audience of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago as ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’. This simple phrase was a remarkable departure from the traditional way of addressing people. First time in history, a monk with clarion voice put women first and hailed them as ‘sisters’ instead of ladies. One hardly needs to guess that I am talking about Swami Vivekananda whom the US press called ‘Cyclonic Hindu Monk’.
His multiple lectures in this conference had a tremendous impact in the modern world. Firstly, he dispelled many myths and rumors spread by the Westerners and Missionaries about India and Hinduism. He firmly established the fact that Hinduism is pluralistic, not polytheistic. The idol-worship, often termed as superstitious and primitive, is merely a ritual to celebrate the universal existence of God. Moreover, he reminded everyone that Hinduism and India have plenty to offer to the world especially in the field of religion and philosophy. Even on the first address, he proudly stated that India offered refuge to Jews population persecuted by Romans in Southern India. During the same lecture, he also quoted from Indian scripture that every religious doctrine is true and leads to the same final goal. This statement of Religious Universalism is remarkable in 19th century, a century ravaged by colonization, subjugation, doctrine of racial supremacy and proselytization.
He addressed the gathering again on 15th September and elaborated the perils of religious parochialism and how Indian view of universalism and liberalism would help the modern world. He cited the example of a stubborn and foolish frog who never left its well and thought that world starts and finished in its well.
His 19th September lecture depicted the Hindu view of world religion. He proclaimed that Hindus believed that the contradictions among the religions are apparent. He stated that ‘the contradictions come from the same truth adapting itself to the varying circumstances of different natures.’ This powerful line, if practiced properly even today, is good enough to put all sectarian divide and violence to rest and bring world peace. Later, in the same meeting, he discoursed at great length on Christianity and its role in India, on Buddhism and Jainism. He even said ‘Hinduism cannot live without Buddhism, nor Buddhism without Hinduism’. He reminded Christian clergymen that India would need food to the starved masses not religion from the Christian missionaries. He clearly stated that there is no need to adopt a different religion but every religion can learn from other religions. He concluded that the modern-day mantra is ‘assimilation not destruction’- the very essence of the Upanishadas his master Yugavatar Sri Ramakrishna taught him. In Chicago, Swami Vivekananda liberalized Christianity and Buddhism from the shackles of orthodoxy. He reminded the world again from this platform of Chicago that religion without service to the poor, marginalized and downtrodden section of society is an act of selfishness.
Unfortunately, people from India and beyond are yet to understand or digest the message of Swami Vivekananda even after 125 years of his speech. Many Indians even today do not realize the true meaning of what Swamiji dreamed about. He revived the lost pride of being an Indian and galvanised the dormant India. His addresses proved to the world that beyond the subjugation, poverty, idol-worship lies an India that has still plenty to offer to the world– a message on inclusivism not exclusivism. Swamiji himself put this into practice in the form of the Ramakrishna Mission, the Hindu monastic discipline, where the birthday of Lord Christ or Lord Buddha are celebrated with equal zeal and devotion as that of Sri Ramakrishna’s.Swami. Many monks of the Ramakrishna mission are great scholars of Christianity and Buddhism and would offer a great liberal view of true Christianity and Buddhism.
From politics to academics, from domestic life to social life, we need to be constructive as destruction is not an answer. Swami Vivekananda’s message of ‘acceptance not tolerance alone of other faiths and religious pluralism’ needs to be reflected in our day to day lives even while performing our household chores. We need to shun idleness, feel proud about the ancient Indian wisdom without being carried away by the past and stop blaming authorities for all our miseries. Sri Ramakrishna reflected what India taught for last 5000 years and Swami Vivekananda teaches us what India needs to do in next 5000 years.
(Shakya Bhattacharjee is a Neurology Registrar at Royal Cornwall Hospital, United Kingdom. Views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Chaupal)