Swami Vivekananda

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Swami Vivekananda

IT'S THE AFTERNOON of September 11, 1893, in Chicago’s Great Hall of Columbus. A young man from India stands before an audience of 7,000 people, among them: writers, poets, philosophers, bishops, priests, theologians and other leaders of Society. He's sharing the stage with world leaders of various faiths. An air of expectant silence pervades the Hall as the young man, overawed by the magnitude of the moment, utters a silent prayer to Sarasvati, the Goddess of Wisdom, imploring her to speak through him. Then, with his “tongue nearly dried up,” he launches himself into an inspired speech lasting just a few minutes. He sits down almost exhausted and is amazed to hear and see the impact this speech has made on the audience. Thunderous applause fills the Hall.

The event was the first day of the Parliament of Religions, held in connection with the World’s Columbian Exposition in the City of Chicago from September 11 to 27, 1893. The Exposition had been organized to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. The young man was Swami Vivekananda. In his speech he shared with the audience a prayer recited by Hindus each day,
“As the different streams, having their sources in different places, all mingle their water in the sea; O Lord, so the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”[1]

Why did the audience respond so enthusiastically to the Swami’s speech? Swami Nikhilananda answers this question in his book, Vivekananda a Biography:

“.. the whole audience had been patiently awaiting this message of religious harmony. A Jewish intellectual remarked to the present writer, years later, that after hearing Vivekananda he realized for the first time that his own religion, Judaism, was true, and that the Swami had addressed his words on behalf of not only his religion, but all religions of the world. Whereas every one of the other delegates had spoken for his own ideal or his own sect, the Swami had spoken about God, who, as the ultimate goal of all faiths, is their inmost essence. …. The Swami gave utterance to the yearning of the modern world to break down the barriers of caste, colour, and creed and to fuse all people into one-humanity.” [2]

Born in Kolkata in 1863, Narendranath Datta, as he was originally known, grew up in that fascinating time when Kolkata, being the capitol of India and the second most important city in the British Empire was the chief port of entry for European ideas and cultural influences. The most important event by far in the young man’s life was his first meeting with his Guru, Sri Ramakrishna. Indicative of the interesting exchange of ideas and cultural influences of those times in Kolkata, it was through Prof.William Hastie, one of his teachers at college, that Naren came to know about Sri Ramakrishna. Prophetically, Sri Ramakrishna saw that this young man had tremendous potential and gave special guidance to him. Some years later, after taking monastic vows and taking the name, Swami Vivekananda, he emerged as one of the greatest reformers of Hinduism and a leading representative of India and Eastern philosophy throughout America, England and Europe.

Since 1985, in recognition of the tremendous contribution the Swami has made to the nation, India has celebrated Swami Vivekananda’s birthday as national youth day.


[1] Swami Vivekananda in the West, New Discoveries Vol 1, by Marie Louise Burke, Advaita Ashrama, p.84.
[2] Vivekananda a Biography, Swami Nikhilananda, Advaita Ashrama, p.134.

Suggested further reading

See  Books Section for further information
* Vivekananda a Biography – Swami Nikhilananda
* The Life of Vivekananda and the Universal Gospel – Romain Rolland
* Vedanta Voice of Freedom – Swami Chetananda Ed.
* Selections from the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda
* Individual books: Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga

"Swami Vivekananda said 'If there is a God, we must see Him and if there is a soul we must perceive it. Otherwise it is better to be an outspoken atheist than a hypocrite.' At last I found someone who made sense..."

GEORGE HARRISON
Former Lead Guitarist - Beatles

"...the very idea of India is it its embrace of all colours, all castes, all creeds. ...its the richness of faiths celebrated by a visitor to my hometown of Chicago more than a century ago - the renowned Swami Vivekananda."
BARRACK OBAMA
Former President of the
United States

"Swami Vivekananda was the greatest spiritual ambassador of India, if I may, in the history of India. And for that matter, the history of Asia. ...he wanted to find a harmony, a kind of synthesis between the Eastern concept of culture and civilization and the Western concept of culture and civilization."

U THANT

Former Secretary General - United Nations