The Story Of Swami Vivekananda: East Meets West

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda

The improbable journey of a brilliant but headstrong child called Naren in becoming a monk called Swami Vivekananda has been covered earlier. The Swami is now on a ship headed west to attend the Parliament of Religions. This is an epic and unprecedented journey for it is the first time a realized master of the caliber of Swami Vivekananda is headed west.

When he arrived in Chicago Swami Vivekananda learnt that he needed a letter of introduction to register, and that the date for registration had already passed. There was no chance that he would be allowed to speak in the “Parliament of Religions”. After a few days in Chicago he realized that he was running out of money. The opening date of the “Parliament of Religions” was put off by a few months. Somebody told him that Boston was cheaper and he could make his money last longer. So he boarded a train for Boston. On the train he met Miss Kate Sanborn, who invited him to be a guest at her home. She introduced him to Prof J. H. Wright of Harvard University. Swami Vivekananda had many in-depth discussions with Prof. Wright and the professor was duly impressed. When he learnt of the swami’s difficulty in attending the “Parliament of Religions” he told him that, “To ask you for your credentials is like asking sun about its right to shine!” The chairman of the committee that selected the delegates was his friend and he wrote him a letter that said, “Here is a man who is more learned than all our learned professors put together.” Based on this the swami was accepted as a delegate. Knowing that the Swami was running short of cash Prof. Wright even bought him the tickets to Chicago.

The day came when the “Parliament Of Religions” opened. There were thousands of people in the audience. Swami Vivekananda found himself on the stage with 23 other delegates. One by one each delegate was introduced and spoke briefly. At last it was his turn. He had no prepared speech and he had no idea what he was going to say. He had never addressed an audience of this size before. When the time came to speak the first words that came out from his mouth were, “Sisters and Brothers of America.” On hearing this the audience spontaneously broke out in an applause. Here was a delegate who instead of addressing them formally was addressing them from the heart. This touched a chord and the audience responded immediately with a warm ovation. The warmth of the audience helped settle down the swami who went on to give a great speech. After the speech was over the applause was deafening! The audience fell in love with the swami who suddenly found himself the new star of the show. Swami Vivekananda refused to be pigeon holed as a representative of Hinduism but considered himself as a representative of all Religions. He spoke for religious tolerance and religious unity. The audience was waiting for somebody to speak at that level and responded enthusiastically.

Here are excerpts from his short speech:

I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true…… I will quote to you brethren a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest childhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: ‘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, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.’

The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: ‘Whosoever comes to me, though whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.’

Sectarianism, bigotry, and it’s horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful Earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.

But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

A Jewish intellectual in the audience remarked 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.

This and other speeches that the swami gave in Chicago turned him into an overnight sensation. His posters were put up all over Chicago and his speeches and story received wide coverage all over the US. This was a significant moment in history for this was the moment when the east finally met the west. The ancient wisdom of Rishis and Seers that was compiled in the Vedas, and culminated in the Upanishads and Bhagvad Gita, was now finally flowing back to the larger body of humanity. The knowledge of the Vedantas represents the underlying river of mystical truths that are at the heart of all true religions. For the first time the west was hearing these truths from the mouth of a fully realized master.

When the swami went back to his hotel room and was alone, he wept. He knew that his days of wandering in anonymity were over. So also were gone the days of quiet solitude and meditation. From now on the Swami was submerged in a whirlpool of work. His output was tremendous and white-hot. He was giving speeches and in meetings, carrying out correspondence, and writing books. He met hundreds of thousands, giving 14 or more speeches a week. It was almost as if he knew his time was limited and he worked tirelessly without pause.

His final speech in the Parliament of Religions continued with Sri Ramakrishna’s message of tolerance. Here are some excerpts:

The seed is put in the ground, and earth and air and water are placed around it. Does the seed become the earth, or the air, or the water? No. It becomes a plant. It develops after the law of its own growth, assimilates the air, the earth, and the water, converts them into plant substance, and grows into a plant.

Similar is the case with religion. 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.

If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world, it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that 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.”

Besides spending time spreading the ideas of Sri Ramakrishna that spoke to the true message of all religions, the swami spent a lot of time dispelling wrong notions about India and Hinduism. At one meeting a woman asked him if women in India threw their children into the river to feed alligators! He also spent considerable time demystifying religion. His ideal was that of the defrocking by the Buddha of a monk who worked a miracle. The Buddha felt that miracles had no place in religion. The supernatural, the Swami espoused, was nothing more than phenomenon currently unexplainable by science, which would eventually catch up. The swami saw no conflict between science and religion, both going from the known to the unknown and approaching the same Truth from different directions.

After about 4 years abroad the swami returned to India January 26 1897 to a tumultuous welcome. Everywhere he went huge crowds turned out to receive him. Finally the swami had a pulpit and he preached tirelessly. His message to his countrymen was simple: “Rise up, awake, stand up on your feet, give up your despondency!” One day an elderly man with a face creased with pain and worry came up to him and asked a question about Karma. What were they to do, he asked, whose karma it was to see the strong oppress the weak? The swami’s response was swift and immediate. With a touch of indignation he said, “Why thrash the strong of course! You forget your part in this karma. Yours is always the right to rebel!” The swami did not see Karma as a chain that bound you and tied you down. His message was of empowerment and an encouragement to shape your own destiny.

The swami was impatient for reform. He was anxious to abolish the rigidity of the caste system and kick start women eductiona. He was appalled at the level of degeneration and apathy in the Indian society. However he did not see this as a fault of religion but the way in which religion was hijacked by vested interest that had twisted the insights of the Vedic seers to suit their own agenda. At one point the swami grew so impatient that he was toying with the idea of forming a political party.

About a year after he arrived back in India the swami embarked on a trip to Amarnath, to visit the holy cave of Lord Siva. He was with an entourage of foreigners from the US and UK. On the way back he visited a famous temple of Kali, the Divine Mother, which was in ruins. Here he had a scorching vision of the Divine Mother. She came to him in an angry demonic form. The Divine Mother reserves this form to fight egocentric behavior. Sri Ramakrishna was a devotee of the divine in the form of the Divine Mother. To him she always appeared as a gentle and motherly form. But Swami Vivekananda perceived her in her more famous demonic form. Later he wrote a poem of his vision and relieved the experience. So intense was the experience that he fell unconscious.

The swami got the message loud and clear. He was in danger of overstepping his bounds and he immediately retracted. Gone was all talk of political activism. He slowly realized that his mission was coming to an end and he had to spend his remaining time winding up his affairs. He had always neglected his health and the white-hot nature of his output had taken its toll. His health was failing and he was frequently ill. He suffered from asthma and diabetes He visited the west one more time spending more time in California this time. He set up two Vedantic centers in the US and then moved back to the home base setting in order the affairs of the religious organization he had created in the name of Sri Ramakrishna. On Friday July 4th 1902 he went to his room and quietly without any fuss went into final Samadhi and gave up his body. He was 39. It had been about 9 years since his first speech in Chicago.

Did Swami Vivekananda achieve the lofty goals set out for him by his Guru Sri Ramakrishna? Clearly the work is unfinished. India is clearly rising but has some ways to go. The ideas of religious tolerance is making ground but we are not there yet. The notion that there is no conflict between Religion and Science is slowly gaining ground but has ways to go. However it cannot be denied that Swami Vivekananda played a huge part in setting the course of our future direction. In many ways all those who question intolerance and dogma and believe in searching for truth by self study and self empowerment are children of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Ramakrishna.

This concludes the 4 part series on Swami Vivekananda. Please let us know your thoughts.

Part 1: Meeting The Guru
Part 2: Mission Impossible
Part 3: The Wandering Years

Related post: The Life Of Sri Ramakrishna

2 CommentsAdd a Comment »

2 Responses to The Story Of Swami Vivekananda: East Meets West

  1. Sumukhi says:

    Wonderful post. Swami Vivekananda and Shri Ramakrishna have always been great inspirations for me /especially in light of their embrace for the goodness inherent behind all religions. Thank you for this concise and wise post on Swamiji’s work with bringing the east to the west. We are all still working with great love to realize His Vision. With great love. Om shantih om.

  2. Ajay says:


    The year of Swami Vivekananda’s arrival to India seems to be mentioned wrongly.
    The year is 1897 and not 1987.


    Editor: Corrected. Thanks!

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