Whether you’re right wing or left, religious or atheist, his teachings have something for you
By Ajit Ranade – Mumbai Mirror
He was born six years after India’s first war for independence, two years after Rabindranath Tagore (in the same city), and six years before Mohandas Gandhi. He lived for 39 years, and adopted the name of Swami Vivekananda at the age of 30, just before embarking on a historic sea voyage to America, to speak at the first ever World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Before that he wandered all over India for six years as a penniless monk, dependent on alms and the generosity of strangers.
Much of what we know about him is from the last nine years of his life. Of these years, five were spent in America and Europe. Despite a short span of nine years, his influence on modern India is immense, and also subtle, and can possibly last for a millennium. His birthday is observed as National Youth Day in India. He founded a monks’ order in Ramakrishna Mission, in the name of his guru. It s motto is service to humanity, and it has been active all over the world for more than 100 years.
This idea of a religious order based on service to fellow human beings is similar to the Jesuit ideal, and is well accepted in most religions today. But at Vivekananda’s time this was considered too radical. This combination of the sacred and the secular through the motto of ‘seva’ to others is one of Vivekananda’s central messages. He once famously said “So long as millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every person a traitor who, having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them.” He also had a strong influence on many Westerners, some of whom became his devout disciples.
The most well known of these was the Irish woman Margaret Noble, who took the name of Sister Nivedita, and was involved in India’s freedom struggle. While in America, a chance meeting with the oil magnate John D. Rockefeller left a lasting impression on the latter, leading to much philanthropic activity of the Rockefeller Foundation.
Another story is of a chance meeting with-Jamsetji Tata on board a ship from Yokohama to Canada. Tata’s empire then was from opium trading, and a conversation with Vivekananda inspired him to start education and research institutions, and also factories in India.
The Tata institute in Bangalore was set up soon after and other philanthropies followed. Earlier, as a no-name wandering monk before his American voyage, Vivekananda was a guest at the house of Lokmanya Tilak in Pune. He stayed for a few days, but the two could converse only in the evenings over supper. Those conversations too must have had an impact on Tilak, for later when he was in jail in Mandalay, he wrote a treatise on the Gita, called ‘Gita Rahasya’ (the secret of Gita).
In this treatise he stressed the karma yoga aspect, i.e. the yoga of action (and not renunciation), and the Yoga of service to others. The connection of Tilak’s thoughts and articulation to Vivekananda may sound tenuous to the skeptic, but the influence of the Swami was expressed later by Tilak himself. Tilak traveled to Calcutta after the triumphant return of the Swami from the West, but was unable to have a personal meeting.
The breadth and depth of Vivekananda’s thought is vast, and can be bewildering at first glance. For instance he said, “You can be closer to God by playing football rather than reading the Gita.” Or “You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself.”
The transcript of his lectures given all across the world, as well letters and poems, constitute his written legacy is known as the Complete Works. It runs into nine volumes about 5,000 pages. It is impossible to capture itsessence, and indeed his teachings have something for everyone, even leftists and rightists, or atheists and rationalists. His life was his message, and its most important aspect was tremendous positivity, purity, selfless love and compassion for fellow beings. Happy Birthday!