The Monday and Tuesday That Shaped History
The history of human thought has been—and would probably for ever continue to be—the story of clash between the incisive insights of exceptional beings transcending human limitations and the assertion and reassertions of traditional stereotypes evolved in man’s ascent from primitivism. All said, the first enriches the world as much as the latter impoverishes it. In our times we have been witnesses to this ever-continuing see-saw battle.
The famous three 9/11’s of our times represent both these two forces. The first was: September 11, 1893 when an obscure Hindu monk from India addressed the World Congress of Religion in Chicago; the second, September 11, 1906 when Gandhi for the first time enunciated the concept of Satyagraha as a unique alternative form of protest against injustice and lastly, September 11, 2001 when 19 hardened terrorists from the Islamist militant group al-Qaeda hijacked four passenger jets and dramatically crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center complex in New York City; both towers collapsed within two hours.
Thanks to the military and economic muscle of the United States, the most well-known of the 9/11’s is the last. It has left mankind a legacy the impact which is still unfolding and its repercussions deeply defining world politics. It doesn’t mean, however, that the impact –both explicit and implicit –of the first two 9/11’s has been in any way less on the thought currents of our time. However, it lacked the spectacularness of the impact which is at once deep and perhaps more lasting.
In this essay I wish to deal with these three 9/11’s first, separately and then cumulatively.
After Swami Ramakrishna’s mahasamadhi in August 1886, his anointed St. Paul, the future Vivekananda travelled all over India as an itinerant monk just as the great teachers of India did for centuries before him. The Buddha had done it. Adi Shankara did it. Nanak in the sixteenth century traversed the whole country to spread the gospel of truth and love. Such extensive travels by enlightened souls in the history of our country kept the Vedantic torch burning bright. Vivekananda must have, in his arduous journeys, been egged on by the famous prompting of the 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.
Destiny beckoned him on and on. He had a task to perform — the task his Master had assigned to him. He had a message to deliver — the message his Master wanted to reach every nook and corner of this ancient land. As he recorded later in his reminiscences: “Nothing in my whole life ever so filled me with the sense of work to be done”. And that took him to the South and finally, to America to attend the Parliament of Religions at Chicago. In this, Raja Ajit Singh of Khetri played a very significant role. It was he who bought Vivekananda’s steamer ticket. A less known but very significant fact is the present on behalf of the Raja, was the royal dress that Vivekananda wore on that momentous day. Tearfully, the person deputed to see him off at Bombay—that was Mumbai’s name then—told him when he ascended the steps to go on board: “My Raja wants that when his Guru addresses the Parliament of Religions he should look like a Raja.” And indeed he did. That’s the portrait with flowing silk robes and a majestic Rajasthani turban –they call it ‘safa’ - that adorns many Hindu houses in India. I’ve that portrait in my study.
Monday, September 11, 1893 was a fateful day — as fateful in Vivekananda’s life as in that of his country. On that day the obscure monk, the representative of “the most ancient order of monks in the world” as he described himself, became an international celebrity. It was, also, a fateful day for his country. A repeatedly defeated and humiliated nation discovered in the son of the soil a voice to shake it from its long-lingering slumber to make it aware of its glorious past and prepare it for a purposive future.
When the morning session of the Parliament of Religions opened, delegates, one by one, were called upon to introduce themselves. When it came to Vivekananda’s turn, all through the morning, he preferred to be passed over. Why? Was he stage shy? Was he overwhelmed by the size of the audience — some 6000 odd. He had communicated with — and quite frequently — small, intimate groups but had never addressed a giant-sized audience that he confronted. Or was it, as Swami Paramananda put it:
Speech is powerless to speak of that
which hath given it power to speak.
So it is, friend, so oft I keep silent
when thou would have me speak.
As the afternoon session commenced a kindly French pastor, sitting next to him, persuaded the shy young Indian monk to take his turn and introduce himself. A few steps forward, the man stood facing an audience. A pin-drop silence in the hall. One sweeping glance over the vast assembly and the lips opened: “Sisters and brothers of America” — the five words that will go down in the history of world religion. In half a sentence, the indestructible contribution of a much-maligned religion spoke out. And very loud and clear. A man was baring the world soul to an expectant assembly. In an instant the Parliament of Religions discovered its raison d’etre — its very meaning, its very object, its real aim. Barriers made by man over centuries crumbled and came crashing down. The wall dividing the East and the West stood breached. And with that the human spirit stood united. All man-made differences disappeared — differences on account of the beliefs of one faith or another. Vivekananda in five short words summed up what each delegate had tried — very unsuccessfully — to express.
It was Ramakrishna, through his favourite disciple, setting the agenda of the Parliament. The keynote had been sounded — man had been revealed to man, human identity as brethren to each other had been un-bared. In their thousands, they spotted his greatness in seconds. [The entire content of Vivekanda's speech]
Writing in Vedanta Kesri in 1932, T J Desai, once a Diwan of a princely state in Kathiawar and a personal friend of Vivekananda, gave his version of what happened:
He (Vivekananda) told me that when he had to speak before the Chicago Parliament of Religions for the first time, he felt a little nervous in the beginning, but the Mahavakya (great Upanishadic saying), aham brahmasmi (I am Braham) at once flashed through his brain and such a tremendous power entered his frame that he outdid himself.
Romain Rolland in his biography of Vivekananda describes the scene very feelingly:
… his speech was like a tongue of flame. Among the grey wastes of cold dissertation it fired the souls of the listening throng. Hardly had he pronounced the very simple opening wards “Sisters and brothers of America!” then hundreds rose in their seats and applauded.
The man about to address the Parliament must have been dumb-founded, wondering whether it was him that the audience was cheering. He was indeed the first to cast aside the language of “formalism” which is de rigueur on such solemn occasions. He spoke a different — a very different — language. And which tongue was it?
All said, man is a multi-layered animal. Each one of us carries our beings wrapped in layers upon layers. There is the layer of skin that we cover with clothes. Neat and clean to cut an image of smartness. And beneath these at a subtle level, are our thoughts and feelings which we inherit. And imbibe. Behind these are our beliefs that shape and determine our behavior. All these layers sit on each other — often overlapping. And beyond all these is an entity — our soul, a divine entity which is common to us all. The most genuine of human communication takes place when one soul reaches out to another soul — piercing, laser-like, through all the intervening layers. It is a rare occurrence. And that something rare — very rare — is what happened there. Vivekananda did it.
It was one of those rare occasions when a man stood and spoke a language which broke down instantly all the barriers of thoughts and feelings and beliefs. It was the universal soul calling out aloud to kindred souls. Those present that afternoon in the hall felt a spirit permeating their very beings. The impact was overwhelmingly deep. The uncontrollable, spontaneous burst of applause was just an outward acknowledgment of that otherwise indescribable experience.
How does this occur? What is the metabolism of this unique chemistry? Perhaps it is something that can only be experienced, and not explained. It seems to be beyond the realm of rational analysis. Even Adi Shankara, perhaps the greatest intellectual this country ever produced, conceded that: “What is said and how it is said is meaningless. What is important, though, is the true import of words reflecting that actual feeling”. (Emphasis added) And when that touches the spiritual being beyond the realm of thought, feeling and belief, the result is electrifying. This is precisely what would have happened on that Monday afternoon on September 11, 1893. It was the universal soul in a monk’s body that reached out to the kindred souls of his audience. And then 6000 odd people stood up applauding almost helplessly to express a deeply moving experience. The great Hindu Monk was a witness to the union of souls.
There are no video clippings of the event. The only records are the reminiscences of those privileged to be present on that rare occasion or the reports that the Chicago newspapers carried the next day. All we know is that it happened. The ‘how’ of it will always be a mystery.
In a simplistic bid to explain, may I draw your attention to an event of our time amply documented thanks to information technology—an event many of you, dear readers, would have been witnesses to.
On 31 August 1997, Princess Dianna, Princess of Wales died of severe injuries sustained in a car accident in a road tunnel in Paris. Her companion, Dodi Fayed, and the chauffer of Mercedes they were travelling in were pronounced dead at the scene of the accident.
Next week in September there was a televised service in Westminster Abbey in honor of the Princess whose tragic death sent out shock waves the like of which have seldom been seen among the upper-tight-lip British. What were they grieving for? The death of a young princess — recently divorced by an adulterous husband and stripped by the Queen of the appellation, Her Royal Highness? Why did the mourning crowds spend hours standing in queues to sign the condolence book and put bouquets at the gates of Kinsington Palace where Diana once lived. Were they showing their deep affection for a dead princess or something else e.g., disapproval for a monarchy out of touch with the sensitivities of common people. I don’t know. No one has a definite answer.
May I refer to the speech of Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer? His oblique reference to the obscurantist traditions of British monarchy elicited cheers. The cheers, if you recall, started from outside the Abbey where thousands were watching the televised service on giant TV screens. The clapping travelled from outside to inside the Abbey, from outer peripheries of the audience to the inner-most where members of the royalty were seated. Isn’t it a most unusual process?
Why did they clap during a funeral service? Someone said something that really touched the hearts and minds of those present; someone gave expression to thoughts and feelings they were inwardly yearning to be articulated, thirsting to hear.
I have cited the above analogy — that many of us have been witnesses to — merely to draw a distant parallel. What had the listening throng assembled at the inaugural session of Parliament of Religions come to hear? Not the dreary discourses on religion. They wanted to hear about things deeply spiritual in a language of the heart.
When the deafening applause finally died and silence was restored he began his address. He greeted the youngest of the nations in the name of "the most ancient order of monks in the world, the Vedic order of sanyasins, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance." And he quoted two illustrative great passages from the Bhagavad Gita as illustrative of his brief presentation: "As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies” and "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths that in the end lead to Me." Yes, “through whatever path” and not the exclusive expressway each founder of world religion prescribed for his followers. And only a Hindu could say that. To quote Roman Rolland again:
Each of the other orators had spoken of his God, of the God of his sect. He — he alone — spoke of all their Gods, and embraced them all in the Universal Being. It was the breath of Ramakrishna, breaking down the barriers though the mouth of his great disciple.
The delegates of various faiths that had come to attend the Parliament represented their respective religions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism. There was, among them, a man who represented all religions of the world. He was, in fact, the spokesman of the Religion of Man. That was Vivekananda and his was the supreme message of Vedanta: “Ye are the Children of God, the sharer of immortal bliss, holy and perfect things”.
The first of the three 9/11 was a resounding reminder of that great message of that great religion.
Are we turning our back on it? What the invading Islamic hordes couldn’t do, what the craftiest of British designs couldn’t achieve, the Nehruvian secularism and American globalization have done in our life time, namely, to make the middle class Hindus become oblivious of their glorious Vedantic past. In the name of ill-conceived pseudo-secularism that our polity eulogizes, our educational system ensures that the post-Independence generations are kept ignorant of Vedantic thought. If we were to adopt today “satyamev jayate na-anritam” – the immortal mantra from Mundak Upanishad as our national motto, there would be a loud chorus of protest from secular Muslims — a hybrid variety of “momins” found only in India. Didn’t all the so-called secular forces join the cacophonous protest against the rendering of Saraswati Vandana in public functions only years ago?
Yet, if India has to discover its place in the modern world and its future destiny, it is only through the revival of its Vedantic legacy. This legacy had been lying buried under the debris of empires that ruled the land. There it had almost fossilized. A vibrant philosophy had been reduced to meaningless ritualistic practices. What had survived were its genes that had been preserved in the blood stream of itinerant ascetics. Ultimately, it was the obscure priest of Dakshineswar Kali Temple who rekindled the flame that will shed Vedantic light for all time to come. And there’s an imperative need today to take that flame everywhere in the country to dispel the darkness that seems to engulf us. No effort has been spared to extinguish that flame in the last millennium. Yet it survives.
For that, thank the first and foremost of the three 9/11’s which reiterated the eternal message of man’s salvation.
Continued to "Invincible Might of the Unarmed Truth"