Vivekananda in America

by Swami Adiswarananda

The message of Swami Vivekananda was the message of Vedanta -- a spiritual teaching that again and again saved India during periods of decline and crisis. The keynote of this message is: "Truth is one: Sages call it by various names." Its four cardinal points are non-duality of the Godhead, divinity of the soul, oneness of existence, and harmony of religions. Religion, in the light of Vedanta, is the manifestation of the divinity already in man. The central theme of Vedanta is harmony of religions. This spiritual harmony is to be realized by deepening our spiritual consciousness. Vedanta asks a Christian to be a true Christian, a Hindu a true Hindu, a Buddhist a true Buddhist, a Jew a true Jew, Moslem a true Moslem. The message was timely and powerful. America had received a rude shock from the Civil War and its aftermath. Science had already shaken the very roots of religious beliefs and dogmas, and the ideas of Darwin were challenging conventional American thought and religion. Americans were looking for a philosophy that could harmonize science with humanism and mystical experience, and Swami Vivekananda's words gave them hope for the fulfillment of their spiritual aspirations. The message was powerful not because of its dialectical superiority or philosophical subtlety, but because of the personality of Swami Vivekananda. The message was an ancient one, but it bore a fire of conviction that was new. One familiar with the life of Swami Vivekananda will recall that his Master, Sri Ramakrishna, saw in him the power and potentiality of a great world teacher. Before the Master passed away, he prophesied: "Narendra (Swami Vivekananda) will teach others ..... Very soon he will shake the world by his intellectual and spiritual powers."

Abroad in America

On the occasion of America's Bicentennial Celebration in 1976, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., mounted a large portrait of Swami Vivekananda as part of its exhibition "Abroad in America: Visitors to the New Nation," which paid tribute to the great personalities who visited America from abroad and made a deep impression on the American mind. Among those honored in the exhibition, some influenced art or literature, some science, education or social reform. But Swami Vivekananda touched the very soul of American people. The commemorative volume of the exhibition says: "The Swami charmed the audiences with his magical oratory, and left an indelible mark on America's spiritual development." This is no exaggeration. Swami Vivekananda was the first Hindu monk from India ever to visit America. Guided solely by the will of Providence, he embarked on this journey to the new world. The unknown wandering monk, lost in the streets of Chicago, suddenly became famous after his first day's brief address before the Parliament. A select audience of nearly 7,000 enlightened representatives of different branches of American thought became thrilled to hear his message and welcomed him with sustained and thunderous applause. He captured the hearts of the American people. Crowds gathered in the streets of Chicago to see the picture posters of Swami Vivekananda placed on billboards around the city, and lecture bureaus vied with one another to enlist him for lectures in different cities. Leading newspapers and journals published his words in bold letters. Some of these newspapers described him as the "cyclonic Hindu," some as "prince among men" or "Brahmin monk," while others chose to designate him by such epithets as "warrior prophet" and "militant mystic." Contemporary leaders of American thought who met him were entranced by the radiance of his spiritual personality and his powerful message. Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University told Swami Vivekananda: "To ask you, Swami, for your credentials is like asking the sun about its right to shine." After hearing Swami Vivekananda, the correspondent of one journal wrote: "The impertinence of sending half-educated theological students to instruct the wise and erudite Orientals was never brought home to an English-speaking audience more forcibly." Professor William James referred to Swami Vivekananda as "the paragon of Vedantists." The Parliament of Religions, which was an afterthought of the planners of the Columbian Exposition, became a focus of historic importance because it served as a pulpit for the presentation of the message of Swami Vivekananda to the American public. Recalling this event, Romain Rolland wrote: "His strength and beauty, the grace and dignity of his bearing, the dark light of his eyes, his imposing appearance, and from the moment he began to speak, the splendid music of his rich deep voice enthralled the vast audience.... The thought of this warrior prophet of India left a deep mark upon the United States." America thus had the blessing of directly hearing a person of the stature of Buddha, radiating purity, compassion, and love.

The news of Swami Vivekananda's success in America soon reached the shores of India and spread like wildfire. The country, lost in the slumber of inertia, woke up with its new vigor and confidence, and a spiritual renaissance was set into motion that would propel India to great intellectual and social development. Today Swami Vivekananda is regarded as the "patriot prophet" of new India. His words carry the power of inspiration and transformation.

Swami Vivekananda indicated Vedanta is the future religion of mankind. With his prophetic vision, he predicted that modern science and education would break down the barriers between nations and prepare the ground for the fulfillment of the age-old dream of one united world. But one world is possible only when there is one common Soul that transcends the limitations of race, culture, and religious denominations. Swami Vivekananda presents before humanity the World-Soul of Vedanta, the non-dual, nameless and formless all-pervading Pure Spirit that alone can make the dream of one world a reality. He foresaw a new world order in which science and religion would cooperate, mysticism would combine with humanism and spiritual harmony would replace religious dissension. His final words at the Chicago Parliament of Religions were, "Upon the banner of every religion will soon be written in spite of resistance 'Help and not Fight,' 'Assimilation and not Destruction,' 'Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.'" At a time when world peace is being maintained by continuous wars, divisiveness is glorified at the expense of unity, and the human soul is being buried beneath the debris of brutality, violence and hatred, the words of Swami Vivekananda give us assurance -- an assurance that we are not living the last days of our destiny and that the light of the Divine, shining in every heart, will triumph over the forces of darkness.

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