Excerpt: Guru to the World by Ruth Harris - Hindustan Times

Excerpt: Guru to the World by Ruth Harris

ByRuth Harris
Feb 08, 2023 03:12 PM IST

This extract from a new book on the life and legacy of Swami Vivekananda focuses on the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, which transformed him into an international spiritual celebrity

...More than the Japanese, the men of the subcontinent proclaimed the richness of their spiritual heritage, and the delegates included Buddhists, Jains, theosophists, the most orthodox of Brahmins, Brahmos, and of course Vivekananda. At the Parliament, they hid their divisions to stand together. Christians, and especially missionaries, were the common enemy, traducing eastern religions as “those barren, vague, meaningless abstractions in which men babble nothing under the name of the infinite.”

Swami Vivekananda (Courtesy Guru to the World)
Swami Vivekananda (Courtesy Guru to the World)

...The South Asians countered such arguments by pointing to the Columbian Exposition’s materialist grandiosity and underscoring the hypocrisy of preaching love while plundering and conquering. They condemned the philosophical misunderstandings (willful or not) of Hinduism that the missionaries perpetuated and emphasized the sophistication of ethical systems that they claimed could hold up to any in the West, focusing especially on ahimsa (non violence).

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560pp, ₹799; Belknap Press
560pp, ₹799; Belknap Press

Twenty Indians took part, according to Barrows’s record, and the first to speak was Anagarika Dharmapala, the Buddhist from Sri Lanka, a notable figure in the Calcutta intellectual scene, who dreamed of re-creating Ashoka’s Buddhist empire in the subcontinent. At this juncture, he was better known than Vivekananda and had forged international connections through his father’s business empire, theosophy, and as a collaborator of Sir Edwin Arnold, the author of The Light of Asia (1879). Arnold’s biography of the Buddha had sold in the hundreds of thousands, and Dharmapala’s association with Arnold meant that he also had a Western audience...

At the Parliament, Dharmapala became the “Eastern Christ” and was admired for his gentle demeanor and longish hair, despite the veiled fierceness of his growing Buddhist nationalism. He praised third-century Buddhist emperor Ashoka as the founding father of the earliest systems of social ethics and contrasted his peaceful reign with the turbulent history of early Christianity.

If Barrows saw Christianity as the pinnacle of evolutionary development, Dharmapala argued the same for Buddhism. He also claimed that Buddhism underpinned science by using evocative evolutionary metaphors of development, and interconnectedness. He mocked English clergymen, whom he called “muddle-headed prelates,” and claimed that Christianity was obscurantist, a tactic also important to Vivekananda when disparaging the idea of the literal truth of biblical creationism. Dharmapala also displayed his scientific credentials when he complimented social organicist Herbert Spencer as well as scientific controversalist and iconoclast John Tyndall.

The contingent from the subcontinent at the World’s Parliament of Religions. (Courtesy)
The contingent from the subcontinent at the World’s Parliament of Religions. (Courtesy)

...The Jain Virchand Gandhi had to brave the condemnation of his community when he traveled abroad and then labored hard to adhere to prohibitions against meat-eating. He weaved vegetarianism into his explanations of the cyclic dynamic of creation and destruction at the heart of many Indian religions, and the importance of ahimsa as an ethical principle. Vivekananda, who was already considering the significance of meat-eating for a revived India, disagreed, but kept his thoughts to himself, and privately admired the Jain’s steadfastness.

A lesser-known but important member of the delegation was the Gujarati novelist and social reformer Manilal Dvivedi, one of the first systematizers and translators of the work of Shankara, the ninth-century Advaitist central to Vivekananda’s thought. In 1892, Vivekananda had visited Dvivedi, and much of his speech on Hinduism at the Parliament drew on these exchanges and perhaps also on Dvivedi’s volumes Raja-Yoga (1885) and Monism or Advaitism? (1889). Dvivedi argued that “the absolute implied the relative, as light implies darkness, the positive implies the negative.” He insisted that the “idea of original sin [was] foreign to Hinduism,” that the “origin of evil” was not found in “disobedience to the Divine Father.” Instead, spiritual growth resulted in a self-realization of inner divinity. These were the abiding lessons that Vivekananda would repeatedly teach while in the West.

...Some, like the Narasimha Chaira, were unafraid to berate Christianity. He announced, “I belong to that class of my countrymen who believe in having a little more bread to eat and a little less of the much-admired Western civilization.” He was appalled by Hindu conversions and saw them as primarily an attempt to escape caste. He also rejected the reforms that enthused the Brahmos:

“Eating with lower castes is a nauseating process to us; we cannot do it if we try.” Vivekananda would have strongly opposed Narasimha Chaira’s don’t-touchism, but heartily agreed with the critique of Western hypocrisy and the need for a “little more bread.”


This array of beliefs suggests the many channels through which the various spiritual tendencies of the subcontinent flowed. And yet, except for the outspoken Brahmin, the Indians recast their spirituality to communicate with Westerners. Hinduism is supposed to have 330 million gods, but virtually none of them was mentioned at the podium...

In his speech of welcome made at the opening session on September 11, Vivekananda differed from the other Indians by doing more than explaining or condemning. Hailing his “sisters and brothers of America”— itself an interesting reversal of the usual form — he set a tone of fellowship, burying an implied criticism in generosity. For example, he thanked the Parliament in the “name of the oldest order of monks in the world,” in the “name of the millions of religions” and in the “name of millions and millions of Hindu people.”

He focused on the antiquity of India’s religious traditions and on India as the fructifying genitor of spirituality. India, he maintained, was also the author of tolerance, a point he drove home by declaring himself as “belong[ing] to a religion which has taught the world. . . . universal acceptance.” Like Ramakrishna, he asserted that he “accept[ed] all religions as true,” citing India as the home for religious refugees the world over. And, in a fashion that would become characteristic, he translated 4:11 of the Bhagavad Gita in this way: “‘Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.’” He ended by declaring the need to resist “sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism.” This rendering of the Sanskrit has become almost a cliché, and it is perhaps so often repeated because of Vivekananda.

Vivekananda and his fellow monks and disciples of Ramakrishna. (Courtesy Guru to the World)
Vivekananda and his fellow monks and disciples of Ramakrishna. (Courtesy Guru to the World)

He referred to “dif­ferent paths” without discussing aspects of Indian religion that might disgust, annoy, or perplex his western audience. At the end, he repeated the point inherent in the quotation from the Baghavad Gita, taking the challenge to Christianity to the most fundamental level of the different sacred texts. The quotation contrasted the capacious universality of Hinduism with the emphasis on sectarian exclusivity in the Gospel of John (John 14:6), which states that “no one comes to the Father except though me.”

...Only on September 19 did Vivekananda seek to “educate” his listeners about Hinduism. He had the knack of preempting the questions of his audience and undermining their stereotypes. He knew Hinduism contained many strands that included the “high spiritual flights of the Vedanta philosophy” and “the low ideas of idolatry”; aspects of the “agnosticism of the Buddhists, and the atheism of the Jains.” He asked, therefore, what was the “common centre to which all these widely diverging radii converge?” He maintained that the religion of the Vedas was a revelation that had no “beginning or end.”

He knew, too, that this idea was puzzling for Bible readers, and he accepted that an endless book sounded “ludicrous.” But he explained it as an “accumulated treasury of spiritual laws,” a precious store that would be added to and rearranged forever. Those who offered new types of treasure were rishis, the men and women (he made a point of mentioning the latter) who would continue to discover them in new ages, and in new cycles. The “Vedas teach us that creation is without beginning or end,” a conclusion that physics now supported through thermodynamics. He described how “the sum total of cosmic energy is always the same. Worlds are created and destroyed in a never-ending cycle, and hence a Brâhmin boy repeats every day: ‘The sun and the moon, the Lord created like the suns and moons of previous cycles.’”

Vivekananda added that this process had its parallel in the self realization of individuals. The “I” of which we were conscious was nothing more than a body, a “combination of material substances,” but the soul (atman) was imperishable, and its endurance stemmed from the endless cycles. A God outside his own creation was impossible, for God would then only express “the cruel fiat of an all-powerful-being.” In this way, he suggested that karma was kinder to human frailty than the punishments of Judeo-Christianity. Misery or happiness depended on past lives, potentially brought back to consciousness by certain techniques... That his contemporaries William James or Sigmund Freud might have made such remarks suggests again why his audience gave him a hearing. Here was a set of ideas that could be readily translated into spiritualist language and views about the nature of the “unconscious,” however differently arrived at.

...Like Ramakrishna, he argued that dif­ferent types of spirituality were not mutually exclusive and defended such practices by comparing them to the symbols, rituals, saints, and relics that many Christians prized and refused to abandon. He asked, “Why does a Christian go to church? Why is the cross holy?... Why are there so many images in the Catholic Church? Why are there so many images in the minds of Protestants when they pray?” As he pondered the spiritual constitution of humanity, he sounded a bit like the evolutionary anthropologists of the era: “all . . . religions, from the lowest fetishism to highest absolutism, [represent the] many attempts of the human soul to . . . realize the infinite. . . .”

...One of the most famous remarks of the entire speech — remembered by those in the audience and then reproduced in newspapers — concerned sin: “The Hindu refuses to call you sinners. Ye are the Children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth — sinners! It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature.”

This line of attack on the very concept of “original sin” would become a powerful weapon in his arsenal.

Vivekananda thus used his cultural breadth to compare Christianity and Vedanta by placing them side by side. Although he was an exotic foreigner, he was oddly reassuring: he focused on the process of becoming, rather than the endpoint of redemption, and thereby softened (especially) Protestant metaphysical doubt. Indian thought, he suggested, was inherently tolerant in understanding the desire for dif­ferent paths to the Divine. ...

LISTEN: Books and Authors podcast with Ruth Harris, author, Guru to the World; the Life and Legacy of Vivekananda Speaking at the Parliament was an immense honor for Vivekananda. He confided to Alasinga that before he rose to the podium, he was almost overwhelmed: “I who never spoke in public in my life to speak at this august assemblage!!” But as he described the lineup of delegates from India, he bragged a bit about how his spontaneous remarks somehow surpassed the prepared speeches of others. He wrote of the “deafening applause of the two minutes that followed” and how he was now “known to the whole of America.”... he was touched by American curiosity and frankness...

Even at the Parliament, he had moments of exasperation and explained that, “day after day,” the delegates from non-Christian nations had been told “in a patronizing way that [they] ought to accept Christianity.” He concluded, when speaking of England, that Christianity wins its prosperity by “cutting the throats” of its fellow men and described India’s poverty where “300,000,000 men and women liv[e] on an average of little more than 50 cents a month.” Christian missionaries, he contended, only fed Muslims or Hindus on condition that they convert to Christianity. He countered that India had “more than religion enough; what they want is bread, but they are given a stone.” His words were a virtual quotation from Matthew 7:9.

...And he made the contrast clear when he spoke on September 26, 1893, on Buddhism: the Fulfilment of Hinduism, and said that there was only partnership and connection, not competition between the two creeds: “the philosophy of the Brahmins” was linked to the “heart of the Buddhist.” Even if there was some window dressing in these remarks, they were meant to reproach Christians for their internecine quarrels. They also led to the central message of his final intervention: “The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.” He also warned, “[I]f anyone dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the other, I pity him from the bottom of my heart.”

...There is much we still do not know about the Parliament or about Vivekananda’s contributions. There are tidbits about his entrée into the burgeoning world of American university life... He also socialized in Chicago homes and at more formal occasions: Dharmapala’s diary, for example, contains disapproving remarks about Vivekananda’s enthusiasm for champagne. Even though Dharmapala received more column inches in reports, photographs show that the newcomer had made an impression, finding himself often at the center of events and his South Asian contemporaries. The newspapers spoke of his handsome and imposing presence, as well as his command of English.

After the Parliament closed, he built on his reputation and on the contacts, eventually easily eclipsing Dharmapala in his fame and influence.

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