"After our youngest son had seen Star Wars for the twelfth or thirteenth time, I said, "Why do you go so often?" He said, "For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life." He was in a new world of myth." Bill Moyers, interview with Joseph Campbell












PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | February 2005  





            A Christian Looks at the Life of Vivekananda

        Dr. S. Sunder Das


     I am sure many of you will be familiar with the account of the first miracle that Jesus performed at the wedding in the village called Cana in Galilee. Jesus was a guest at this wedding. The wine gave out, to the discomfiture of the master of ceremonies. Mary, the mother of Jesus, somehow felt her son could help. When she asked him to do something to produce wine, he got the servants to fill the troughs with water. The water immediately turned into wine. The guests asked the master of the feast as to why he had kept the good wine till the end. It has been said that when Robert Browning was a little boy at school, the teacher had set the class a composition entitled 'The Miracle at Cana'. While the rest of his classmates were busy writing furiously, little Robert just sat dreaming. Just before the composition was due to be handed in, he wrote just one sentence: 'The water saw its Lord and blushed.' Needless to say, he got the highest marks for his effort. If I were asked to sum up in one sentence the essence of Swami Vivekananda's work, this is what I would say: 'He brought the awareness of the divinity of man to the common people all over the world.'

     The crucifixion of Jesus at the instigation of the chief priest of the Jewish people had enormous repercussions. Nature itself rebelled against the inhuman crime: there was pitch darkness for three hours. When the spirit of Jesus left his body many momentous things happened. There was a severe earthquake and the graves opened, and people who had been dead for a long time awakened and went into the city. The most significant thing that happened was that the veil of the temple was rent in twain from top to bottom. Many Christians even to this day do not understand the significance of the torn veil. From the time Moses liberated the children of Israel from the clutches of the Pharaoh of Egypt, no one could approach God except through the intercession of the priests. The veil represented the partition between the common people and God. The advent of Jesus changed all that. Anyone, poor or rich, sinner or righteous, could approach God. It has been so with the Hindus too. For a very, very long time, the priestly class held the right to interpret to the common people the prolific rituals inherent in Hindu worship. For one thing they were the only ones who knew Sanskrit, the language of the sacred Hindu literature. They were the educated people of the time and only they could inform the people as to what rituals were required to appease the deity. Not only was there a princely living for the priests, they also wielded enormous power and influence over the lives of innumerable people.

     It could be said with conviction that the life of Swami Vivekananda was devoted to the illiterate poor people of India who were downtrodden by the application of the caste system. In that way he also sought to bring the common people to an appreciation of how every human being had the capability to reach the heights of spiritual awareness. Vedanta philosophy holds that divinity resides within each and every human being and the aim of a successful life is to acquire not only a knowledge of this fact but also to feel this conviction. The veil that Vivekananda rent was the bringing to the awareness of the poor people that they needed no priest to intercede for them and that they could approach God directly without any human intervention.

     Why was Swami Vivekananda chosen to take the message of Vedanta to the West? We have to look at the concepts of extroversion and introversion. The extrovert is outward looking and has the capacity to interact actively with the world of people; the introvert, on the other hand, is inward looking and can be said to live in a subjective world. Some important research findings on introversion are:

     Ј Ј Introverts have higher levels of cortical arousal and better ability to learn conditioned responses, and they seem to be better learners using formal, direct teaching methods.
     Ј Ј They seek stimulus avoidance, are cautious and tend to over-socialize.
Introverts may be seen to show stimulus aversion in the sense that they already have a high cortical arousal, any further stimulation being perceived as unpleasant. It is perhaps the introversive characteristics of the reclusive yogi which makes him spend a massive slice of his life ensconced in a cave, oblivious to the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
     Ј Ј They are process oriented and tend to avoid competitive situations. An interesting correlation may be drawn with the theory of karma promulgated by the ancient sages of India which postulates rebirth thousands or millions of times until the individual Atman is ready to merge with the Divine Consciousness. Once Swamiji asked Pavhari Baba what the secret of success in work was, to which he replied, 'The means should be loved and cared for as if it were the end itself.' This is another way of saying what the Gita teaches: 'To action man has a right; he has no right to the fruits of action.' This is in conformity with the process orientation, that introverted Indian culture stands for.
     Ј Ј They have a rich fantasy life and this may be of aid to people of reclusive habits.
     Ј Ј They do not usually suffer from boredom.
     Ј Ј The threshold for pain is lower for the introverts and therefore it may be found that their suffering is disproportionate to the intensity of the painful stimuli.
     Ј Ј Introverts are more susceptible to punishment.
     Ј Ј The body temperature of introverts is higher in the morning and early afternoon.

     This has several practical implications. Introverted people seem to function best in the early morning and forenoon. As the day progresses, their body temperatures and their efficiency tend to wane, whereas extroverted people come alive in the afternoon and evening. It is interesting to note that in Vedanta and Yoga philosophies the pre-dawn hours, referred to as brahma-muhurta, are said to be the best time for contemplation and study.

     Extroverts, on the other hand, have a craving for stimulation; they often need change of activity and rest pauses. They are very susceptible to rewards. They are impulsive and are slower to learn the rules of society.

     The introversion-extroversion dichotomy is often overlooked by the layman who thinks that every seeker after truth is fit to be a sannyasin. Many yogis and holy men have spent a lifetime trying to fit their personality into a pattern of renunciation which is not in their nature. Some of them have had to be content with being karma yogis. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, although he did not put it in these words, was nevertheless aware of the fact that despite the spiritual evolution of Swami Vivekananda he was cut out to be a messenger of spirituality not only to the Western world but also to India. He had the necessary outgoing nature to relate to people of all faiths. One of the essential attributes he had was his innate gift for superb public relations. His target population could be rich or poor, white or brown or black, atheists or believers. He could relate to all of them with great success.

     Swami Vivekananda had always been extroverted and he would never accept anything without questioning. Very often he needed positive proof about everything. For example, during the early days of his discipleship, it was reported to him that Ramakrishna Paramahamsa had renounced wealth, money in particular, and that the very contact with money would cause him discomfort. Vivekananda hid a coin under his guru's mattress. Ramakrishna, when he occupied his bed, jumped up as if in pain. He made a search of the mattress when the offending coin was found. This was just one of the tests he subjected his guru to. Swami Vivekananda's food preferences have caused a great deal of furore among his critics, who have accused him of pampering to his bodily needs at the expense of spirituality. Some orthodox Hindus even accused him of eating forbidden food at the table of infidels. He retorted by saying: 'Do you mean to say I am born to live and die as one of those caste-ridden, superstitious, merciless, hypocritical, atheistic cowards that you only find amongst the educated Hindus? I hate cowardice. I will have nothing to do with cowards.' Further, 'I belong as much to India as to the world, no humbug about that. Е What country has any special claim on me? Am I any nation's slave? Е I see a greater power than man, or God, or Devil at my back. I require nobody's help. I have been all my life helping others.' This is reminiscent of what people said about Jesus when he participated in the social life of his community, eating and drinking with the common people. It has to be pointed out that severe renunciation is very often sought by introverted people whereas the karma yogi, who is usually an extroverted man, does not have to renounce anything but live the life of a householder bearing in mind that every act that he does is for the divinity which resides within and which is all around him. This means that a radical attitudinal change has to be brought about. And this is exactly what Swami Vivekananda did. It has been recorded that once he came across an outcaste puffing away at his pipe. He craved for a smoke and requested a draw from the pipe and enjoyed it, very much to the discomfiture of the man, who was horrified that a high caste man should share a pipe with him.

     Many people talk glibly about the bane of untouchability and how everyone is equal in God's eyes. But when it comes to the crunch many so-called upper class people would shudder to partake of the food prepared by a person of lower caste. Not Swamiji. He not only practised what he preached, he also accepted everybody as equal without any hint of patronization. Once when he was in Khetri, Rajasthan, people came to him all day long with their questions. Three days and three nights passed in that way. Swamiji was so engrossed in talking about spiritual matters that he did not even stop to eat. No one even asked him whether he wanted to eat or rest. On the last night when all the visitors had left, a poor man came forward and said lovingly, 'Swamiji, I have noticed that for three days you have not even taken a glass of water! This has pained me very much.' Swamiji felt as if God himself had come to succour him. He said to the man, 'Will you please give me something to eat?' The man, a cobbler by trade, said, 'My heart yearns to give you some bread, but how can I? My touch will defile the food. If you permit I will bring you some coarse flour and dal and you can prepare them as you please.' Swamiji said without hesitation, 'No, my child, give me the bread you have baked. I shall be happy to eat it.' At first the poor man was frightened because he thought the Maharaja would punish him if he did as Swamiji asked. But the eagerness to serve a monk overpowered his fear. He hurriedly went home and returned with freshly baked bread, which Swamiji ate with relish. It goes to show that in India there are millions of poor people of humble origin who are noble and large-hearted and that, given a chance, they would help other people.

     But Swami Vivekananda also had to learn his lesson about purity and impurity the hard way. Just before his impending departure to America, he was invited by the Maharaja of Khetri to a musical entertainment in which a nautch girl was to sing. Swamiji promptly refused to go since he was a monk and not permitted to enjoy secular pleasures. The singer was hurt and sang that he should not look upon her sins. In her song she said, 'Is not same-sightedness Thy name?' Swamiji realized that the girl whom society condemned as impure was nevertheless a precious person in the sight of God. Before God there is no distinction of good and evil, pure and impure. Such pairs of opposites become manifest only when the light of Brahman is obscured by maya. In this connection we have to remember the story of the woman caught in adultery who was brought to Jesus. The punishment among the Jews for adultery was death by stoning. Jesus said to the hostile mob, 'He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.' Soon the crowd disappeared, each one being convicted in his own heart!

     It might be worthwhile to relate another of the experiences of Jesus, a Jew by birth and therefore supposed to be superior to the gentiles. A publican named Levi hosted a very big feast for Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees, the cream of Jewry, took Jesus and his disciples to task, saying, 'Why do you eat and drink with publicans and sinners?' Jesus answered, 'They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.'

     One of the outstanding gifts Swamiji had was the ability to chastise his friends and disciples without causing offence, although it was not always so. His hostess in America, Miss Dutcher, a conscientious Methodist Christian, could not take in with equanimity Swami Vivekananda's revolutionary ideas. She became physically ill and was not seen at the meetings for a number of days. One sometimes wonders how Swamiji could be so tactless as to offend a lady who had befriended him and who had placed at his disposal her own large mansion, even building an annexe for him to stay. Miss Ellen Waldo, another of his disciples, was once in tears. On being asked why, she replied, 'I seem unable to please you. Even when other people annoy you, you scold me for it.' He said, 'I do not know those other people well enough to scold them. So I come to you. Whom can I scold if I cannot scold my own?' When Swamiji had to speak in Boston, he looked at the artificial and worldly crowd of people and contrasted it with his master's purity and renunciation. He berated them mercilessly for the hypocrisy and shallow nature of Western culture. The audience was resentful and many left the meeting in anger. However, on returning home, Swamiji recalled what Ramakrishna Paramahamsa had said about tolerance, and he wept. His master had never uttered a word of condemnation against anyone.

     However, Swamiji tried hard to adhere to the principle of seeing God in every living being, which is what his master was at pains to teach him. His personal ideal was that of the sannyasin who during the First War of Independence (known as the Sepoy Mutiny in the West), when he was stabbed by a British soldier, said to his murderer with his dying breath, 'And thou also art He.' Then there is the tale of the saint who ran after a thief with the vessels he had dropped in his terror at being discovered. The saint then said, 'O Lord, I knew not that Thou wast there! Take them, they are Thine! Pardon me, Thy child.' This is reminiscent of the story of the bishop's candlesticks in which the thief, who was the bishop's guest, stole his silver candlesticks and tried to abscond with them. The police apprehended him with the booty whereupon the bishop made the remark that the silver was his gift to the man. The idea of recognizing an enemy would have seemed to Swamiji's mind a proof of hatred.

     Swamiji's reverence for Buddha was one of the passions of his life. Sister Nivedita relates with considerable feeling, how one evening Swamiji sat with his disciples reconstructing the story of Siddhartha's renunciation as it must have appeared to his wife Yashodhara. On the night of the fateful farewell Prince Siddhartha returned again and again to the bedside of his sleeping wife. It was she whom he was about to sacrifice for the sake of the world. That was his struggle. Then the final farewell with that gentle kiss on the foot of the princess. During the seven years of the prince's absence , Yashodhara had lived clad in the yellow cloth, eating only roots and fruits, and had not used a bed. On his return as Buddha, she took the hem of his garment while he told their son the Truth. When the child asked, 'Mother, who is my father?' her answer was, 'The lion that passes down the street, lo, he is thy father.' When the lad, at his mother's behest, asked his father to give him his inheritance, he had to ask thrice before Buddha turned to Ananda, his disciple, and said, 'Give it.' Thereupon the disciple threw the gerua cloth over the child. On Ananda's asking his master whether he should also bestow on Yashodhara the ochre cloth, Buddha assented. Thus Yashodhara became his disciple. One of the first things that Swami Vivekananda did after receiving the ochre cloth from his master was to go to Bodh Gaya and sit under the great tree where Buddha was said to have attained his enlightenment.

     There were many reasons why Swamiji was so impressed by Buddha. The fact that Buddha kept in abeyance his own attainment of nirvana till all sentient beings on earth had attained that state, appealed to the sense of fair play that Swamiji espoused at all times. The work that Buddha did for helping the poor people, especially the outcastes, was something Swami Vivekananda had always done. To this day, Buddhists abhor the existence of the caste system. The very establishment of the Ramakrishna Mission was the culmination of Swami Vivekananda's desire to uplift the Indian masses. He believed, for instance, that it was important to help other people even at the risk of retarding his own spiritual growth. On one occasion he remarked, 'Of course I would commit a crime and go to hell for ever, if by that I could really help a human being.' Like Buddha he also believed that the Truth should be accessible to every human being. He was fond of giving the example of Ramanuja, who broke his vow of secrecy and proclaimed the sacred mantra to all. One wonders whether any human being is ever unworthy or unready to hear the Truth!

     It is perhaps a mark of the sannyasin that he is not afraid of physical dangers. Swami Vivekananda had to learn this fact perhaps the hard way. The first experience was when as a young swami he was pursued by a band of monkeys. He was afraid they would harm him. An old sannyasin, who happened to be nearby, said to him, 'Face the brutes.' This is what Vivekananda did and the monkeys ran away. He never forgot this lesson. Much later when Swamiji was in England, he happened to visit a farm in the company of an Englishman and Miss Muller. An enraged bull charged at the little group. The Englishman ran for his life and reached the safety of a hill. Miss Muller ran as fast as she could but fell, being incapable of further effort. Swamiji, seeing her predicament, stood in front of her with folded arms. When it neared him, the bull suddenly stopped, turned and walked away. One of the thoughts that had preoccupied Swamiji's mind then was the distance that the bull would be able to toss him and whether he was to die in such a violent manner. It is also on record how he, as a young boy, had saved a child from being trampled under the hooves of a horse in Calcutta.

     One of the important things that Swamiji did during the last few years of his life was this: he paid more attention to people doing social work to raise the living conditions of the poor and downtrodden. He scoffed at the idea of people looking for their own salvation by austerities and meditation. This is in accordance with his extroverted personality, which determined his preference for action rather than contemplation alone. It has to be remembered that he was a karma yogi, which is symbolized by his organizational capacity resulting in the establishment of the Ramakrishna Mission in India and by his work in America and England. The Ramakrishna Mission as it is constituted now has an important arm which deals with the uplift of the poor and illiterate. However, when he was not engaged strenuously in his active work, he could meditate for a long time. It is on record that in India and in the USA he experienced nirvikalpa samadhi many times. In this regard one may say that he is not a typical example of an extroverted man. I hasten to add that every rule has its exception. It has been said that when he was a young novice under the wing of the Paramahamsa, Ramakrishna asked him what he wanted most in life. Naren, as he was known then, promptly replied, 'To remain always in samadhi'. Ramakrishna remarked, 'I thought you had been born for something greater, my boy.' This set Swamiji thinking. Thus he stood for work without attachment or work for impersonal ends as one of the highest expressions of the religious life. Very soon an order of monks was formed with their faces set primarily towards new forms of civic duty. This was the beginning of the Ramakrishna Mission.

     Every thinking person who reads Swami Vivekananda's life would be intrigued to find that he rarely spoke about his mentor and preceptor in public, especially in America. One wonders why he did not, for instance, publicize the teachings of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa at the Parliament of Religions. Sister Nivedita had this to say: 'He never in public mentioned his own Master, nor spoke in specific terms of any part of Hindu mythology.' At one stage Max Muller, the orientalist, asked him what he was doing to make his guru Ramakrishna Paramahamsa known to the world. At that time Max Muller was writing a biography of the Master and he enquired whether Vivekananada could procure some material for this endeavour. Instead of directly acquiescing to this request Swamiji asked a colleague, namely Swami Saradananda, to write down the sayings of Sri Ramakrishna and the biographical facts of his life. Later Max Muller incorporated these in his book Ramakrishna: His Life and Sayings. Vivekananda explained in the following words why he himself had not written about the Master's life:

     I have such deep feelings for the Master that it is impossible for me to write about him for the public. If I had written the article Max Muller wanted, then I would have proved, quoting from philosophies, the scriptures and even the holy books of the Christians that Ramakrishna was the greatest of all prophets born in the world. That would have been too much for the old man. You have not thought so deeply about the Master as I have; hence you could write an unbiased account that would satisfy Max Muller. Therefore I asked you to write.

     Whatever explanation Swamiji was able to offer in this regard remains shrouded in mystery. Indeed no satisfactory explanation exists or is possible.

     Swamiji had his share of hecklers too. Fortunately, these people were not shallow troublemakers but sincere seekers after truth. Once a white-haired philosopher said to Swamiji at the end of a lecture, 'You have spoken splendidly, sir, but you have told us nothing new.' Swamiji was quick to reply, 'Sir, I have told you the Truth. That, the Truth, is as old as the immemorial hills, as old as humanity, as old as creation, as old as the Great God. If I have told you in such words as will make you think, make you live up to your thinking, do I not do well in telling it?' Vivekananda was a master of repartee. Once during question time, a native of Scotland made a snide remark by asking, 'What is the difference between a baboo and a baboon?' Swamiji's instantaneous reply was: 'Oh, not much, it is like the difference between a sot and a Scot - just the difference of a letter.' Although Swamiji was abrupt with facetious, insincere people, he was never known to show the slightest impatience at being interrupted by sincere seekers after truth, of whom there were many in his audience.

     One of the things we have to remember is that Swami Vivekananda was born endowed with certain gifts, one of which was his phenomenal memory and an ability to speak in public. Even as a schoolboy these characteristics came to light. At school one day, he was regaling his classmates with a story. When the teacher came into the room and started teaching, the children were still listening to Narendra's story. All this whispering and inattention to his teaching enraged the teacher, who questioned his pupils as to what he was saying. No one could answer. But Narendra was able to repeat word for word what the teacher had said. This proved that he could attend to two things at the same time. Psychologists will tell you that it is impossible to do this. However, Indians have always spoken about some gifted people who could have what is called ashtavadhana, the ability to attend to eight different things at the same time! Later on, while at Belur Math, Swamiji wanted to go through the Encylopaedia Britannica. After perusing some of these volumes for a few days, he could accurately remember much of the contents.

     During the early days of his explorations, Swami Vivekananda travelled widely all over India, many a time without food. His aim was to travel to Kanyakumari. He always proceeded alone on these journeys quoting the famous words of Buddha: 'Even as the lion not trembling at noises, even as the wind not caught in a net, even as the lotus leaf untouched by the water, so do thou wander alone like the rhinoceros.' After reaching Kanyakumari he worshipped Devi Kanyakumari in the shrine and then swam across the shark-infested waters to meditate on the rocks where, according to the Puranas, the Devi had performed tapasya.

     Any account of the life of Vivekananda cannot be complete without a narration of what happened at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. To start with, the Maharaja of Khetri was responsible for introducing two important things into the life of Swamiji. It was he who suggested that he take the name of Vivekananda, perhaps to emphasize his wisdom and knowledge. Secondly, the prince bought a first-class ticket on the ship SS Peninsular of the P & O Company. Besides this he also provided a robe of orange silk, an ochre turban and a handsome purse. Swamiji enjoyed the voyage because he could go sightseeing at various ports of call, Colombo, Singapore, Hong Kong and Yokohama. From Vancouver in Canada, he travelled by train to Chicago. He arrived too early for the Parliament and did not have the necessary accreditation from a well-known institution. Moreover, his funds were dwindling. It is to the credit of American women that some of the very wealthy ones came to his help and extended their hospitality to him. Although he had stage fright in the beginning, when he did speak to the gathering, his first words, 'Sisters and Brothers of America', drew the people to a standing ovation. What he did was open the eyes of the Americans to the message of Vedanta. Swamiji made clear to the people there that unlike many other religions, Hinduism was a tolerant approach to life which admitted the divinity of many religious leaders like Jesus, Muhammad and others. It is not possible here to go into details about his message to the West but it can be summed up in the words of St Paul, 'And now abideth faith, hope and love: but the greatest of these is love.'

     Some Pithy Sayings of Swamiji



     Ј Ј 'It is well to be born in a church, but it is terrible to die there.'
     Ј Ј 'What the world wants is character. The world is in need of those whose life is one burning love, selfless. That love will make every word tell like thunderbolt. Е Awake, awake, great ones! The world is burning with misery. Can you sleep?'
     Ј Ј 'Silence! ye teachers of the world, and silence! ye prophets! Speak Thou alone, O Lord, unto my soul!' (In the context of Thomas a Kempis' Imitation of Christ.)
     Ј Ј 'It is a sin even to think of the body.'
     Ј Ј 'It is wrong to manifest power.' ~



International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015






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