This is, by any definition, a rather remarkable book. It is part biography, part compendium, part chronology and part eulogy. It has been put together by a young swami after more than a decade of patient work during which he must have scoured every journal that had written anything about Swami Vivekananda during the days of his ascendance. It is a tribute to the Swami in a way that the founder of the Ramakrishna Order would have approved. Come February 1988 and it will be the 125th birth anniversary of Vivekananda who did not live up to be even 40. And yet such has been his remarkable life, that like Shankaracharya long before him he achieved much ‘ more than most people achieve in several life times.
Amazingly, he rose to fame only after the Parliament of Religions convened in Chicago, in 1893, when young Vivekananda, then just 30, rose to address the gathering with the stirring words: ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’. An American journal later reported that ‘seven thousand people rose to their feet as a tribute to something they knew not what’. A member of the audience, one Mrs. S.K. Blodgett later wrote: ‘When it was over, I saw scores of women walking over the benches to get near him and I said to myself: “Well my lad, if you can resist that onslaught, you are indeed God”.’
He had gone to America and landed in Chicago, alone and penniless. Will Durant has written about this incident. ‘A day later he appeared in the Parliament of Religions at the World Fair, addressing the meeting as a representative of Hinduism and captured every one by his magnificent presence, his gospel of the unity of all religions and his simple ethic of human service as the best worship of God… It was but a step from this to Gandhi.’ Romain Rolland, the French philosopher, called him ‘energy personified’. Professor A.L. Basham, writing about Vivekananda in 1963 said: ‘It is very difficult to evaluate his (Vivekanada’s) importance in the scale of world history. It is certainly far greater than any western historian or most Indian historians would have suggested at the time of his death… In centuries to come he will be remembered as one of the main moulders of the modern world, especially as far as Asia is concerned, and as one of the most significant figures in the whole history of Indian religion…’ From Professor Basham, the distinguished Indologist and historian, these are pregnant words.
Indian intellectuals tend to be rather blase when they discuss swamis and holy men. Far too many fakes have fouled up the world of religion and it would come as no surprise if mention of Vivekananda evokes another yawn. And yet Basham was no flatterer when he eulogized Vivekananda in 1963. India had not seen the likes of him before. He had virtually initiated what the late Dr C.E.M. Joad once called ‘the counter-attack from the East’. Since the days of the Indian missionaries who travelled in South East Asia and China more than a thousand years earlier, he was, Basham said, the first Indian religious teacher to make an impression ‘outside India’. Indeed he was.
In an age of Mahesh Yogis, Chandra Swamis, Bhagwan Rajneeshs and the like, Vivekananda seems slightly out of place. He was not concerned with tantrik practices, performing miracles and materializing rings and jewellery out of thin air. His gospel was one of ‘man-making’. Vivekananda did not describe himself as a social reformer. Even in his time there were several of them. Not that Vivekananda despised social reformers. But he had set himself a different task of rousing an entire nation from its Kumbhakarnic slumber. And in large measure he succeeded.
What is ironic is that he had to show his mettle and get his recognition outside India before he became acceptable in India. And getting recognition outside India was by no means an easy task, even after his historic success in Chicago. On 7 February 1897 he told a representative of the Madras Times: ‘I have visited a good deal of Europe, including Germany and France…at first I found myself in a critical position, owing to the hostile attitude assumed against the people of India…At first many fell foul of me, manufactured huge lies against me by saying that I was a fraud, that I had a harem of wives and half a regiment of children…Vituperation by the low caste missionaries made my cause succeed better…’
The path of true devotion never runs smooth and Vivekananda often had a hard time. In Baltimore, in the United States, hotel after hotel would refuse him admission on grounds of colour. That did not faze him. Genius conquered all.
There are good biographies of Vivekananda available, but this surpasses them all for a different reason. It recreates the atmosphere of the times in which Vivekananda lived by quoting from various journals and from the statements of various people. Tributes from high and low have been painstakingly brought together; they are from ordinary people, from monks and from celebrities, saints and savants including Sri Aurobindo, Subrahmanya Bharati, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Radhakrishnan, Rabindranath Tagore and Vinoba Bhave.
A most notable chapter is the Chronicle of Events beginning with 1863. That was the year in which Vivekananda was born. As the compiler has rightly remarked, it is important to know the background of a man’s life in order to understand the growth and development of that life. The Chronicle deals with the great social and other changes that came over the world in the four decades beginning with 1863.
Vivekananda’s first meeting with his guru, Ramakrishna Paramahansa was in 1881 and took place when he was hardly 18. Sri Ramakrishna died in 1886. And yet, in those five years Ramakrishna made a powerful impact on his disciple. That at the age of 23 Vivekananda would rally his departed master’s disciples together and eventually organize them into what became known as the Ramakrishna Mission is one of the minor miracles of our times.
The book is complete with a general and subject index and a portfolio of rare pictures of Vivekananda from 1886 onwards. The general index, unfortunately, does not mention page numbers, which is a pity. The greater pity, it would seem, is that there is need to re-introduce Swami Vivekananda to his countrymen now. It is ironic again, to remember what Professor Wright remarked on the day Vivekananda was to address the Parliament of Religions. ‘To ask you, Swami for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine.’ The Swami still shines to those who would throw open their windows and come out into the light.
M.V. Kamath is a distinguished journalist; former editor of The Illustrated Weekly Of India.