October 2002: On a hot humid day, over a 100 years ago, a handsome young man dressed in bright ochre silk sailed out of Bombay on a unique mission. Naren stood on the deck of the Peninsular while the steamer slipped out of harbour. As he gazed at the shrinking coastline, there were tears in his eyes. Naren's mind was crowded with memories of the people and the purpose that had put him on that ship. He thought of India and her culture, of her greatness and her suffering, of the rishis and of the Sanatana Dharma. His being was steeped in love of this land where he had wandered alone in a determined quest. Soon the last glimpse of Indian soil vanished over the horizon. As the blue grey waters of the Arabian sea surrounded him, the young sannyasi murmured under his breath, "Yes, from the land of Renunciation, I go to the Land of Enjoyment." Who was this sanyasi and what was he going to do in the distant land of America? From tiny village huts to grandiose palaces all over India, different people knew him by different names. Once upon a time, he had been just Narendranath Datta, son of a successful Calcutta lawyer. As a wandering monk he had sometimes been Vividishananda - one who is trying to know many things. Elsewhere, others had known him as Sachidananda and glimpsed within him shades of its meaning-existence, knowledge, bliss absolute. Now on the ship's log he was known as Swami Vivekananda, the name by which time and history would remember him. To his disciples he was both revered 'guru' and a "full of fun Swami," who enjoyed pan-supari and tobacco. He was a brooding scholar and also a merry zesty singer. Just days before the departure for America, Swami Vivekananda had described himself as a "frolicsome, mischievous innocent." To a guru-bhai, wishing him bon voyage, it seemed that Naren's "heart was a huge cauldron in which the sufferings of mankind were being made into a healing balm." The core of this man's being, at the age of 30, was driven by the relentless zeal of a divine mission. Over a 1,000 years ago, Swami Vivekananda felt, Shankaracharya had "caught the rhythm of the Vedas, the national cadence." Now that same ancient music reverberated through Vivekananda's soul. But it was not enough to simply sing the beauty of the Vedanta. So he set out on an endeavour that transcended national boundaries and sought to actively include all humanity. This took him to a sparkling new city beside an ocean-like lake in the heart of North America. Chicago was hosting an international fair to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' accidental discovery of the 'new world'. This 'Exposition' and the World Parliament of Religions were also celebrating the dawn of the' American Century' with its spiraling dream of limitless prosperity and ever-expanding power. Into this world sailed that unusual monk of athletic build and luminous eyes in the shape of lotus petals. He went uninvited, driven by the conviction that a special role awaited him there. Amid the glittering affluence of a civilisation exulting in its sense of superiority, he spoke of renunciation. India, he said, has a special message of love to share with the world. The applause that followed his words stunned Vivekananda himself and echoed for decades. But now, across a 100 years of non-violent striving followed by brutal turmoil, history is asking us if Vivekananda's claim had any validity. In a society rapidly turning into a battlefield, conflicting sides are simultaneously drawing upon Swami Vivekananda. The bigoted and intolerant claim him as much as those who oppose such forces of darkness. What was it about the Swami's personality, life and work, that makes him today both a hero for the chauvinistic and also a guiding light for people of all faiths who wish for peace on earth through a universal brotherhood of religions? The answers lie partly in the life experience of the man who could say with unabashed confidence that "I shall inspire men everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God." As Narendranath Datta, the law student, this man had once thought that the ancient sages who saw all beings as one with God "must have been insane." He had read western and Indian schools of philosophy and felt that agnosticism was the only way for a thinking man. These were days of rollicking about, singing merrily on the streets of Calcutta. Brilliantly witty, Naren's was the life of any party. "His senses were keen and acute, his natural cravings and passions strong and imperious...he was no sour or cross-grained puritan," one of his friends Brajendranath Seal later recalled. But a terrible restlessness racked Naren's being. He had practised meditation since childhood but it wasn't enough. He wanted certainty, a glimpse of the Ultimate Truth. A feeling of emptiness and sadness began to obsess him. He longed for a "Guru or master who, by embodying perfection in the flesh, would still the commotion in his soul." So he sought out holy men and asked them: "Have you seen God?" He went to Maharshi Devendranath Tagore, leader of the Brahmo Samaj, of which Naren and his family were also members. Even the Maharshi could not give a positive answer saying only: "My boy, you have the Yogi's eyes." The answer finally came from a man who lived in a temple garden on the banks of the Ganga just outside Calcutta. "Yes, I see Him (God) just as I see you here, only in a much more intense sense," Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa told Naren "God can be realised, one can see and talk to Him as I am seeing and talking to you. But who cares?" Naren cared enough not to take anyone else's word for it. He doubted, reasoned and questioned all the way, till he felt the 'living God' within. Three decades later French philosopher Romain Rolland saw him as "one of the first to sign a treaty of peace between the two forces eternally warring within us, the forces of reason and faith." These strides took Vivekananda to a cross-road. One tempting path led to the contemplative quiet of Himalayan caves. He chose the other path which merged into the bustle of everyday human striving and suffering. For he believed that "man is the highest symbol of God and his worship is the highest form of worship on earth." Thus the multi-dimensional journey of Vivekananda's life is a tale of stupendous human will, adventure and lyrical beauty. There are clues here for understanding the ground we stand on today and perhaps signposts for helping one step across the minefield of contemporary strife. 'Reason and Faith' "He who is in you and outside you, Who works through all hands, Who walks on all feet, Whose body are all ye, Him worship, and break all other idols! "Ye fools! Who neglect the living God, And his infinite reflections with which the world is full, While ye run after imaginary shadows, That lead alone to fights and quarrels, Him worship, the only visible! Break all other idols!" This realisation did not come easily to the merry young man who was once Narendranath Datta. But it was the essence of the journey that transformed him into Swami Vivekananda and inspired this poem. Naren was a restless teenager. He was haunted by that eternally irksome question: "Does God really exist?" For, if God does exist, he thought, "then why is there no response to my passionate appeals? Why is there so much woe in his benign kingdom?" So he floundered about, 'like a child in the wildest forest lost." But slowly he emerged from the thicket of doubt and uncertainty to worship "the only God in whom I believe...my God the miserable, my God the poor of all races." How did this happen? The tortuous path to this realisation was lit by a frail-looking, ascetic who worshipped the Goddess Kali at the garden temple of Dakshineshwar on the banks of the Ganga. This man, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, was able to say that he had indeed 'seen' God. Naren was not instantly convinced but the sincerity and confidence of Sri Ramakrishna's claim was moving. Others already believed that Sri Ramakrishna was a Paramahamsa - one who has attained the highest spiritual state. But to Naren, at first, Ramakrishna seemed like a "brain-sick baby, always seeing visions and the rest. I hated it." He was not the first to say so. Ramakrishna's family had though him insane, till a conference of pundits declared him a Divine Incarnation. The pundit's verdict did not impress Naren either. Likewise it seemed absurd when Ramakrishna insisted that Naren was himself the incarnation of a great sage come to fulfill a divine mission. He also refused to automatically accept the worship of Goddess Kali. "How I used to hate Kali and all her ways!" Naren was to say later. He was convinced that God had to be formless. When Ramakrishna spoke of the divine revelations he experienced, Naren said: "Who knows whether these are revelations from the (Divine) Mother or mere fancies of your brain! If I were in your position I should attribute them to imagination pure and simple." Yet Ramakrishna's self-evident piety , his "wonderful love" and "marvelous purity" drew Naren. This kept him locked in an intense tussle with the man he eventually accepted as his Guru. Naren was deeply moved by Ramakrishna's insistence to "be spiritual and realise the truth for yourself." So Naren continued to search and question. He ridiculed the ideas of Advaita Vedanta saying: "I am God, you are God, these created things are God -what can be more absurd than this!" When Naren's insistence on his own view sometimes bordered on the fanatical, Ramakrishna would urge him to "try and see the Truth from all angles and in every perspective." Meanwhile, the premature death of Naren's father had plunged his family into a dire financial crisis. Once accustomed to plenty, the Datta household now had barely enough to eat. Unable to find a job and provide for the family, Naren was driven to desperation. So one day, like millions of others have done for ages, he set out to ask a favour from Goddess Kali. As he entered the Kali temple at Dakshineswar late at night, he was "caught in a surging wave of devotion and love." Forgetting what he had come to ask for, he prayed instead for knowledge, devotion and uninterrupted vision of the Divine Mother. That night, he went two more times into the temple to ask for the material well-being of his family. But each time only the plea for devotion and divine benediction arose from within him. An ineffable joy and serene peace overwhelmed Naren, and his life was never the same again. The change that came over him is to remain a mystery. Years later, as Swami Vivekananda, he said "The thing that made me do it (accept Kali) is a secret that will die with me." Perhaps he felt the Super Conscious opening to him. For, later, he would say with supreme confidence that till this happened "religion is mere talk, it is nothing but preparation." This did not contradictor alter his commitment to reason. It only convinced him that "all religion is going beyond reason, but reason is the only guide to get there." In Ramakrishna he found a living teacher and in the Buddha a timeless inspiration. "I have more veneration for that character (Buddha) than any other -that boldness, that fearlessness and that tremendous love." Over 2500 years ago the Buddha had said what Naren now felt himself: "...do not believe merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Have deliberation and analyse, and when the result agrees with reason and conduces to the good of all, accept it and live up to it." Thus later, even when Swami Vivekananda preached the message of Advaita Vedanta and extolled the Vedic civilisation, he also said: "I take as much of the Vedas as agrees with reason...the greatest gift God has given us." He therefore respected people whose reason led them to be atheists, and had contempt for the blindly religious. The person who was willing to die for God particularly worried Vivekananda. Such a person he felt, was equally capable of turning around and killing his own brother. For anyone who wanted to start a sectarian dispute, Vivekananda had this question: "Have you seen God? Have you seen the Atman: If you have not, what right have you to preach his name-you walking in darkness trying to lead me into the same darkness. This certitude came from the conviction that God is not someone sitting in the clouds issuing instructions to mere mortals. God is love and within all. "Never forget the glory of human nature," Swami Vivekananda said. "Be still and know that you are God." This realisation was earned through relentless concentration and meditation that took Naren deep inwards. Often, while meditating he would lose all bodily sensation. He thus came, by his own labours, to share Sri Ramakrishna's conviction that the various religions are not contradictory but instead several phases of one eternal religion. Swami Vivekananda's life journey encompassed many of these phases and extended far beyond. He was simultaneously a devout worshiper of Kali, the unseen life force of the universe, and an untiring admirer of the Buddha. The greatness of Buddha, above all human beings in history, was sealed by his dying words: "Let there be no false bondage, no dependence on me... The Buddha is not a person, he is a realisation. Work out your own salvation." But then personal salvation alone cannot be the goal of one who truly finds an ideal in the Buddha. Seeking the salvation of others is even more important. And salvation, Swami Vivekananda decided, did not need the grace of God for "freedom always is." But even this pursuit of spiritual ecstasy is not enough. "To serve Naryana, you must serve the Daridra Naryanas -the starving millions of India." This was also the ambitious task that Sri Ramakrishna had set for his disciples. In his last years, while he battled painfully with cancer, Sri Ramakrishna identified a select group of disciples, many of them westernised middle-class Bengali boys, to carry on this work. Naren was the spiritual inheritor of the 'Master', as they called Sri Ramakrishna, and natural leader of the band of sanyasi disciples. These disciples aimed to demonstrate the special ideal of unity among religions by having the spirituality of Hindus, the mercifulness of Buddhists, the activity of Christians and the brotherhood of Mohammedans. Over the next decade and a half, following Sri Ramakrishna's death in 1886, Naren's life was a struggle to simultaneously realise this universal ideal and also to fulfill a mission within the Hindu fold. These were not automatically complimentary tasks. Swami Vivekananda struggled to make them so, just as he had forged his own path across the apparent contradictions between faith and reason. One kind of restlessness had taken Naren to Sri Ramakrishna's doorstep. Now anchored to mysterious strengths he gave way to a new restlessness, a wandering urge that dominated the rest of his short life. By stretching the imagination one could still picture the peaceful Ayodhya of a hundred years ago. Perhaps it was there, meditating on the banks of the river Sarayu, that Swami Vivekananda was inspired to see Sita as the ideal of India. For, he said, "Sita knows no bitterness...she never returned injury." In reality, however, the itinerant sanyasi found that India often did not live up to this ideal. But meandering across the country, puzzling over its history, he realised that India's life as a civilisation depended on her people - on their striving to truly be Sita's children. And he insisted that every Indian had it in him to try. This confidence was wrought in the course of a legendary journey across time and space. Its guides were eternal ideals like Sita and human embodiments like Buddha and Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. The path was illuminated by the Buddha's conviction that "when a man hurts you and you turn back to hurt him, that would not cure the first injury: it would only create in the world more wickedness." But do we focus on this while commemorating Swami Vivekananda's 'Bharat Yatra' a century later? Or are we content to celebrate his life as a declaration of Indian greatness and not look at the motivating force which propelled it? Why in this land of high spiritual achievements, is there so much injustice, indignity and poverty? This question haunted Naren long before he embarked on the Indian odyssey and emerged from it to become famous as Swami Vivekananda. The answers came to him gradually from a close study of the homeland and self- awareness of his own responses. Once, weary after a long trek, Naren was cheered to see a man by the roadside contentedly smoking a pipe. With all the ease and camaraderie of a fellow smoker he went up to the stranger and asked for a puff from the chillum. The villager looked up at the imposing figure in ochre clothes and shrank back shaking his head. "It would defile you,. sir" he said, "I am a bhangi (sweeper)." Naren too instinctively pulled back. Continuing down the road he felt uneasy and disturbed. As a sannyasi he aspired to be above notions of caste and prestige. "Yet I fell back into caste ideas when the man told me that he was a sweeper ...That was due to ages of habit." Suddenly, he turned around, went back to the villager and said "Brother do light me a chillum." The mystified man agreed to share his chillum only after much persuasion. Centuries of conditioning had convinced him that he was an 'outcaste', duty-bound to protect the 'purity' of the upper castes by staying out of their way. On hearing about this incident the sanyasi's friends teased him saying that it only showed his addiction to smoking. The young aspirant to renunciation probably laughed along. But he knew it wasn't that simple. People like that wayside stranger made Naren feel, within himself, the tenacious grip of old social customs that divide people. His diligent struggle for "sameness of vision" could not be just a quest for spiritual ecstasy. It was also a tussle to liberate himself from false duality in practical life. This effort, in which he did not always succeed, went on till the end of his 39 years. As he once wrote to a friend: "If ever get true renunciation, I shall let you know." But all of his life was not a sombre struggle. From Calcutta to Porbundar and Almora to Kanyakumari, the learning was accompanied by a sheer enjoyment of adventure and affection of strangers who became friends. Naren reached Agra in the monsoon of 1888 and was enthralled and overpowered by the Taj Mahal. For days, he just stared at it from every possible angle because "every square inch of this wondrous edifice is worth a whole day's patient observation and it requires at least six months to make a real study of it." In Lucknow, he was "lost in admiration of the splendours bequeathed by the Nawabs of Oudh, and of the city's gardens and mosques." The imperial grandeur of Delhi left him physically and spiritually elated. According to his disciple biographers, the Swami "found in Delhi the symbol of the immortal glory of the Indian people, with its grand, composite culture." But the collective memory of the same people was also filled with the pain inflicted rulers who lived on the blood of their subjects. Swami Vivekananda sensed this and was preoccupied with problems which persisted "even if the kings be of as god-like a nature as that of Yudhishtra, Ramachandra, Dharmashoka or Akbar, under whose benign rule the people enjoyed safety and prosperity ." For such paternal care provided "no occasion for understanding the principles of self-government." This perpetual dependency on kings for everything gradually drained people of their inherent energy and strength. Were Puranic tales about near perfect kingdoms mere fantasy then? Swami Vivekananda decided that it was in most cases impossible to decipher historical facts out of myth and legend. But studying the ancient scriptures convinced him that there had been an age of brilliant Vedic seers and valorous noble kings to match. Yet even then, the same society had also been busy inventing its own hurdles. "Liberty is the first condition of growth," the Swami wrote to Alasinga Perumal, one of his closest disciples. "Your ancestors gave every liberty to the soul, and religion grew. They put the body under every bondage, and society did not grow." Thus Hinduism accumulated the loftiest teachings on the dignity of humanity but "no religion on earth treads upon the necks of the poor and low in such a fashion as Hinduism." Once, in a moment of blazing anger, he wrote: "The whole world looks down with contempt upon the 300 millions of earthworms crawling upon the fair soil of India and trying to oppress each other." But his mission was to improve, not worsen, the already low Indian self-confidence. Swami Vivekananda lived at a time when many kinds of bitterness were rife. A certain class of Indians had begun to see themselves as `losers' in the race of nations and some were eager to shift the blame for all their ills to foreign invaders, beginning with the Muslims over a thousand years ago. For Swami Vivekananda this approach amounted to self- evasion. Even he saw India as an enslaved nation, but primarily because of its own failings and missed opportunities. "The Lord once more came to you as Buddha and taught you how to feel, how to sympathise with the poor, the miserable, the sinner but you heard Him not" he wrote. "Your priests invented the horrible story that the Lord was here for deluding demons with false doctrines!...So you are bond slaves to any nation that thinks it worthwhile to rule over you." But even Buddhism had internally decayed and weakened before it could be driven away by the old priestly class. There emerged then an alliance of mutual self-interest between the priests and the royal class - both now sans their former moral values. This union, being "inherently steeped in vice," led to the "sucking of the blood of the masses, taking revenge on the enemy, spoliation of others' property..." Such rulers were thus "cheap and easy prey to the Mohammedan invaders from the West." Inspite of his sage-like equanimity, Vivekananda had a deep contempt for all those who used force to spread their religion. He vehemently denounced the violence of Islam and Christianity in certain phases of their history. But he also knew that coercion alone, could not keep people converted. Islam won adherents with its message of equality. Christianity with its message of love. As he roamed across India, the Swami had lengthy discussions with several Muslim maulvis on both Islamic and Hindu philosophy. He concluded that the differences between the Hindu and Muslim worlds were more apparent than real. The national ideal, for Swami Vivekananda, was drawn from the teachings of the ancient sages and thus essentially Hindu. But he saw no inherent conflict between this and the distinct stream of Indian Islam. "Shah Jehan would have turned in his grave to hear himself called a `foreigner'," the Swami once told a disciple who had erred in so describing the Mogul emperor. By the time he reached that last bit of Indian rock off the coast at Kanyakumari, Swami Vivekananda had acquired a lucid clarity about his mission. Without abandoning his internal critique of Hinduism, Vivekananda decided that there had been enough faultfinding in the 19th century. The time had come for reconstructing and building strength. For Swami Vivekananda this meant that "the epithet 'mild Hindu', instead of being a word of reproach, ought really to point to our glory...how much development of qualities of love and compassion have to be acquired before one can get rid of the brutish force of one's nature, which actuates the ruining and slaughter of one's brother-men for self-aggrandisement:' The regeneration of Hinduism required Hindus to have renewed confidence in these ideals and themselves. Non-injury can be a living faith only for those whose confidence and sense of self-worth is deeply rooted. What then, does the violation of these ideals in Ayodhya itself tell us about ourselves today? Following Swami Vivekananda more closely, as he leaps into the sea at Kanyakumari and later heads West, may help to understand what we are today and offer renewed hope in being able to rise to finer levels of realisation and being. A Plan for India "At Cape Camorin sitting in Mother Kumari's temple, sitting on the last bit of Indian rock - I hit upon a plan: We are so many sanyasis wandering about, and teaching the people metaphysics-it is all madness. Did not our Gurudeva used to say, `An empty stomach is no good for religion?' " The athletic young sanyasi sat perfectly still on an off-shore rock at Kanyakumari. Steeped in deep meditation he seemed to have reached a realm beyond time, space and the tingling salt spray of crashing ocean waves. This image, of Swami Vivekananda at the rock that now bears his name, is one of modern India's most enduring legends. And yet, the glare of adulation has tended to obscure the tumultuous human struggles of that legendary persona. And these struggles are the clue to why a century later Swami Vivekananda, and his plans for India, inspire people across the ideological spectrum. Let us journey back a hundred years to see what bothered Vivekananda and served as an impetus for his sense of mission. Wandering as a pilgrim, from the Himalayas to India's southern most tip, Swami Vivekananda saw: " A country where a million or two sadhus and a hundred million or so of Brahmins suck the blood out of these poor people, without even the least effort for their amelioration - is that a country or a hell? Is that a religion or a devil's dance?" So he resolved to undo these injustices and revitalise India by saving religion from those who made it a "devil's dance". But this ambitious aspiration had to contend with global forces that were beyond any single man's influence. Looming large over the threshold of the 20th century, Swami Vivekananda saw "modern western science dazzling the eyes with the brilliancy of myriad suns and driving in the chariot of hard and fast facts." By the late 19th century western materialism and colonialism had come to dominate the world. By comparison the Indian civilisational endeavour seemed to have atrophied. The colonial encounter had shaken the self-confidence of Indian society as never before. In addition the efforts of Christian missionaries to convert "heathens" had triggered anxieties within sections of Hindu society. Swami Vivekananda's self-defined task was to simultaneously eliminate the evils in Hindu practice and also reaffirm the value of the tradition. Thus he felt compelled to assert that "Hinduism is not a mistake." Herein lay one of his most intense struggles. As a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and a diligent spiritual aspirant Swami Vivekananda sought the essentials of Hinduism in pure spirituality. As an activist entangled in the throes of history, he sought the common bases of Hinduism in order to unify its diverse strains. The insights of Vedanta provided these common bases and gave the Swami a means of synthesizing his inner quest and his worldly mission. The essence of this mission was to demystify spiritual truths - bringing them out of the monasteries and the hold of priest craft. Since the objective was to retrieve the highest ideals of the existing religion, Swami Vivekananda placed the greatest onus for this revitalisation on orthodox Hindus. He held them responsible for the fact that essential principles had languished over the centuries and decayed internally. What were these essentials? Religion, Vivekananda said over and over again, is realisation. Rituals, colours, 'mantras' and idols may help, but these were not the essentials of a spiritual life. For, he believed, "if your heart has not opened, if you have not realised God, it is all in vain." And purification of the hear requires "worship of the Virat-of all those around us." Religion and spirituality , so defined, was in Vivekananda's, view the common ground for the amalgam of cultures in India. And restoring health to these essentials of religion was, for the Swami, a necessary prerequisite for the rejuvenation of India. All these convictions added up not to one but many 'plans'. " There had to be a "man-making" education, both spiritual and scientific, that would give strength to the people. Additionally, the making of a great future India required "organisation, accumulation of power, coordination of wills." But when he arose from his meditation on the rock at Kanyakumari the high tide of ideas was also accompanied by a dogged restlessness. He was not sure exactly how all this would add up to both, filling empty stomachs and saving religion. Besides, all plans demanded selfless dedicated workers and funds. The wandering mendicant had a few followers but no funds. So he decided to go to America to spread the message of Indian Spirituality and to earn money. Behind the glitter of western affluence Swami Vivekananda sensed another kind of decay and crisis. So he saw himself as a missionary who must seek a mutually enriching synthesis of eastern and western thought. But would preaching "the incomparable glory of the Vedas and the Vedanta" necessarily be compatible with his goal of fostering universal religion? For Vivekananda, the two were one and the same. His notion of "conquering" the world with spirituality was based on the faith that "love must conquer hatred, hatred cannot conquer itself." Thus bursting with a "tremendous power and energy" Vivekananda set forth on the solitary voyage to America and the Parliament of Religions where history waited to test his faith. Children of Immortal Bliss "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 Catholic cardinal sat at centre-stage in crimson robes. On both sides of him were other devout followers of 'different paths', gathered for an unprecedented Parliament of Religions. There were Buddhists in flowing white robes and the Greek Orthodox Christians in sombre black, leaning on ivory sticks. At one end of this platform of diverse faiths in their distinct colours sat Swami Vivekananda in gorgeous red robes and a bright yellow turban. The characteristically confident exterior veiled his anxiety. He had neither a prepared speech nor much experience in public speaking. "My heart was fluttering and my tongue nearly dried up," he was to write later. "I was so nervous and could not venture to speak in the morning." Just when it seemed doubtful whether the Hindu monk would speak at all, Swami Vivekananda arose to share the above prayer with that unique gathering. Bowing to Devi Saraswati, he began - "Sisters and Brothers of America..." Suddenly to his utter amazement, hundreds of people in the audience were on their feet, applauding. "Here was a soul greeting thousands of other souls in sweet and loving terms- 'Sisters and Brothers' ," one eye-witness later recalled. "...Or was it the Divine power behind him that seized the audience by a whirlpool of spiritual ecstasy?" This event took place on September 11, 1893, at the Art Institute of Chicago. Today, a hundred years later, while the legend of Swami Vivekananda's success at the Parliament of Religions lives on, few know exactly what he said. It is generally believed that he did Hindus proud. But was Swami Vivekananda's action a claim of Hindu greatness? Or, was it a call for mutually respectful give and take between different religions -an expression of the hopeful potential of all humanity? The time had come, Vivekananda said in his opening speech, to root out the "horrible demons" of sectarianism, bigotry and fanaticism which had destroyed entire civilisations. The bell that tolled at the start of the Parliament, he hoped, would 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." This sentiment had already been expressed by others at the Parliament. What sealed Swami Vivekananda's place of prominence in history was the enfranchising declaration that all human beings were inherently "Children of Immortal Bliss." "Allow me to call you brethren, by that sweet name - heirs of immortal bliss-yea, the Hindu refuses to call you sinners!" said Vivekananda in his main speech called 'Paper on Hinduism'. "...Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; ye are not matter; ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter ." God - "the pure and formless one, the Almighty and the All merciful" he said, was to be worshipped not out of fear but through love. Far superior to loving God for hope of reward, in this or the next world, was "to love God for love's sake." Worship in this sense needs no specific or exclusive formula. Therefore, in Vivekananda's interpretation, "the Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe a certain doctrine or dogma, but in realising - not in believing but in being and becoming." "The Hindu may have failed to carry out all his plans," he went on to add. Yet, the concepts of spirituality that evolved in India, Swami Vivekananda argued, had a special contribution to make in building a future universal religion and a true brotherhood of all humanity. The Parliament of Religions signalled both this striving for a 'universal religion' and the difficulties in making it a reality. Swami Vivekananda himself was attempting to simultaneously affirm universal brotherhood and yet to take a firm stand, as a Hindu, against Western cultural imperialism. The Parliament of Religions was part of a larger exposition which was a self-conscious display by the United States of America as an emerging super-power. Underlying the liberalism implicit in a 'parliament' of religions, was an unquestioned confidence in the primacy and superiority of Christianity. Just as Swami Vivekananda's decision to go to America had been stiffly opposed by Hindu orthodoxy, the organisers of the Parliament were also under considerable pressure. The Archbishop of Canterbury had refused to send a representative because, he said, "Christianity is the one religion." Attending the Parliament would mean conceding "the equality of other included members and the purity of their position and claims." Such views hovered in the background of the Parliament and later dogged Swami Vivekananda's efforts in the West. Some American critics ridiculed Vivekananda as "a man who came out of a land that had been dead and buried for 5,000 years and talked of renunciation." So while Swami Vivekananda was the star of the Parliament he did not quite conquer the West. Yet in certain circles he did make a deep and lasting impact. This was partly due to the transparent authenticity of his convictions. Even while he denounced the methods of Christian missionaries his deep reverence for Christ's message was self-evident. Thus, the Boston Evening Transcript wrote in April 1894 : "There is infinite humiliation in this spectacle of a pagan priest reading lessons of conduct and of life to the men who have assumed the spiritual supervision of Greenland's icy mountains and India's central strand but the sense of humiliation is the sine qua non of most reforms in this world." This was the context in which Swami Vivekananda's success at Chicago became a matter of pride for Indians. This was particularly so among Hindus, some of whom hailed the Swami as the first Hindu 'missionary'. The Swami's success boosted the emerging struggle against the smugness of the colonial culture. But it did so with an appeal for enhancing human civilisation as a whole on terms of mutual respect, eschewing aggression and conflict. This is what makes Swami Vivekananda a `live' historical personality, more than a century later. But his legacy is now ironically caught in bitter controversy. One set of claimants to the legacy -are preoccupied with asserting Hindu "pride" in vengeful and aggressive terms vis-a-vis other religions. And then there are those inheritors who strive to realise the ideal of universal brotherhood of all religions. To understand the nature of this striving we need to look closely at what Swami Vivekananda meant by 'Universal Religion' and how it can be realised. This may also help us to see why these closing words of the Chicago address could mark the dividing line between genuine religiosity and bigoted fanaticism: "...upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, inspite of resistance: 'Help and not Fight,' , Assimilation and not Destruction', 'Harmony and Peace and not Dissension'." Quest for Universal Religion "They are very sincere people, these fanatics, but they are quite as irresponsible as other lunatics in the world. This disease of fanaticism is one of the most dangerous diseases. All the wickedness of human nature is roused by it. Anger is stirred up, nerves are strung high, and human beings become like tigers." The cyclonic sanyasi knew he would not live to be 40. So the remaining nine years, following his instant fame at the Parliament of Religions, were spent in a whirlwind of activity. Travelling widely across America and Europe he taught, learnt and pursued his spiritual quest with intense vigour. These encounters with diverse cultures confirmed Swami Vivekananda's view that religion had given humanity both "the intensest love" and "the most diabolical hatred." So he set out to explore if a universal religion, a brotherhood of different faiths, was at all possible. Let us begin, Vivekananda suggested, by recognising that there cannot be, and ought not to be, a universal philosophy, mythology and symbols. "For I know that this world must go on working, wheel within wheel this intricate mass of machinery , most complex, most wonderful. What can we do then?" asked the Swami. "We can make it run smoothly, we can lessen the friction...By recognising the natural necessity of variation." This requires us to 'learn that truth may be expressed in a hundred thousand ways, and that each of these ways is true as far as it goes." The vision of God may vary in every case, "yet he is one...this is the only recognition of universality that we can get." Countless saints and seers have reiterated this elementary truth for centuries. Yet, most efforts for a brotherhood of religions failed for want of a practical plan which would show people the point of union with all other faiths without destroying the individuality of any religion. Over the years Swami Vivekananda worked out the rudiments of such a plan and anchored it with this maxim: "Do not destroy." He urged people to build instead of pulling anything down. "Help if you can; if you cannot, fold your hands and stand by and see things go on. Do not injure, if you cannot render help." Secondly, the Swami suggested, "take a man where he stands and from there give him a lift. If it be true that God is the centre of all religions, and that each of us is moving towards him along one of these radii, then it is certain that all of us must reach that centre. And at the centre, where all the radii meet, all our differences will cease." And, he insisted, we can all teach ourselves to get there. "None can make a spiritual man out of you...your growth must come from inside." Such growth is, according to Swami Vivekananda, the only way to check the latent "tiger" in us. This is vital for human civilisation because the fanatic uses not merely swords but contempt, social hatred and social ostracism against all those who do not agree with him. On the other hand, the rational man is glad that others do not think exactly as he does. Since thinking beings must differ, "variation is the sign of life, and it must be there." A celebration of this variation would be universal religion. The ideal may seem elusive but Vivekananda believed it to be inherent to human striving. "If the priests and other people what have taken upon themselves the task of preaching different religions simply cease preaching for a few moments, we shall see it is there." These were the elements that Swami Vivekananda challenged within his own faith. And the central mission of the Swami's life was within the Hindu fold. As he often said, the Hindu might believe that unity in variety was the plan of Nature. But, in practice, bitter sectarian disputes and layers of superstition had obscured these universalist and humane principles. Vivekananda struggled to retrieve them. It was in this context that he called Buddhism "the fulfillment of Hinduism." He urged that the Brahmin intellect must join "with the heart, the noble soul, the wonderful humanising power of the Great Master (Buddha)." Swami Vivekananda's mission to galvanise Hindus and make Hindu society dynamic was a multi-dimensional endeavour. But at its core was the exhortation for this "fulfillment" to become a part of living practice. Then it might be possible for Hinduism to actually embody the ideal of universal religion as Vivekananda had defined it in the Chicago address: "It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognise the divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be created in aiding humanity to realise its own true divine nature." Since the Swami was a man of action, and not just ideas, his energies were severely over-taxed in this last decade of his life. The magnitude of his spiritual, social and organisational mission drove him at a pace which made fatigue inevitable. But the Swami's disciples believe that exhaustion alone could not overcome that superhuman will. They recall his guru Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa's prediction that Naren would leave his body the day he realised his true self. Perhaps it was that realisation which allowed the Swami to slip away one evening in 1902. He had often visualised his own departure from the body, murmuring, "Hara, Hara (The free, the free)." Yet, the words which resound through his life journey, and perhaps make a fitting epithet are these: "Love never fails, my son; today or tomorrow or ages after, truth will conquer ...Believe in the omnipotent power of love." Part II of this series Rajni Bakshi October 2002 Rajni Bakshi is a freelance journalist, and currently a contributing columnist with The Hindu. (6 of 6) Author's Acknowledgement: This two part series was put together in March 1994. Several pages first appeared in the form of a series of six articles in the Sunday Review, Times of India; May 30, 1993; June 27,1993; July 25,1993; September 11,1993; September 19,1993; September 26, 1993. This work was possible because of the encouragement and patience of seniors and friends, among them - Prof. M.P. Rege, Prof. Ram Bapat, Anand Bapat, Vijay Pratap, Ravi Chopra, and particularly John D'Souza, Avinash Jha and other friends at the Centre for Education and Documentation. Most of all I would like to thank the monks of the Ramakrishna Mission, in Bombay and at Belur Math, who not only made available books and facilities but stressed the importance of critical, open enquiry .