Swami Vivekananda’s Spiritual Heirs Reach Out Within and Beyond Hinduism

Chicago IL: Vivekananda Vedanta Society (VVS) of Chicago hosted a two-day conference at the downtown Hilton from November 10, 2013 to commemorate the 150th Birth Anniversary of its illustrious founder, who introduced Hinduism to America through his electrifying address on September 11, 1893 before the World Parliament of Religions (WPR) in Chicago. Attended by fifty monastics from around the world, the second day reached out to other major religions and also sought to recontextualize the Swami’s message and mission within the wider fabric of Hindu traditions.

VVS Chicago Minister-in-Charge and Convener Swami Ishatmananda read out the blessings of Ramakrishna Mission President Swami Atmasthananda, who emphasized the contemporary universality of India’s ancient teachings. The full day proceedings were emceed by Octavia Harrison, an Afro-American VVS devotee since the early 70s. Conveying the blessings of Mata Amritanandamayi, Swami Dayamrita delivered an inspired speech on SV’s continuing relevance. SV “was a perfect blend of mental purity and vitality. Take up one idea, make that one idea your life, think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, and every part of your body be full of that idea and just leave every other idea alone. That is the way to success; this is the way great spiritual giants are produced. This was SV’s brilliant call to the world.” The only way to preserve dharma and our culture is by practicing it. One child from every Indian family should be dedicated to human welfare with state support upon graduation. A message of felicitation from Archbishop of Chicago Francis Cardinal George, read out by his Vicar for Ecumenical and Religious Affairs Father Thomas Baima, recalled that the 1993 WPR declared the US to be a multi-religious and no longer just a Protestant-Catholic-Jewish society.

Ishatmananda reminded the audience that here was once the residence of the Lyons, with whom SV had stayed, which is why the Hilton was chosen as the venue despite greater costs. Indicative of perennial American optimism was the celebration of the Columbian Exposition despite the financial panic of 1893 preceded by the devastating fire of 1871. Author and researcher Asim Chaudhuri delivered the keynote address on “Vivekananda: Who he was, and why and how he attended the WPR in Chicago.” The Swami was told in India that he would have to go to the West to be understood and valued.

Speaking on “Vivekananda’s Contribution to the West,” Washington DC-based American convert Swami Atmajnananda noted that “we are just beginning to understand his true significance.” For the US Bicentennial in 1976, the Smithsonian Institute brought out the book Abroad in America listing SV among the 27 most important visitors to this country. Starting with his impact on philanthropy through Rockefeller, Atmajnananda attempted to discern his influence on philosophy (William James and Josiah Royce), science (Nikolai Tesla), civil rights (identifying himself with Afro-Americans despite being the object of mistaken discrimination), and rights of women (who stuck with him even though warned against the seductive heathen by their preachers). “What he did in India also had a great influence on America for he encouraged his countrymen to become global in vision and action,” as is plainly visible in Chicago today.

The interfaith panel was devoted to “Help, Assimilation, and Harmony” from the points of view of different world religions. Four of the speakers were current or past Trustees of the Council for the World Parliament of Religions: Abdul Malik Mujahid (Chair), Rabbi Michael Balinsky, Rev. Dr. Shanta D. Premawardhana (Protestantism), and Rohinton Rivetna (Zoroastrianism).

Rev. Donald Senior, C.P. President of Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, spoke on the willingness of the Catholic Church to validate those truths found in other religions that do not contradict its own tenets. Imam Mujahid began by observing that SV had been the talk of the town and nation, whereas other speakers at the WPR were discussed only in books dedicated to them. After pointing out the ubiquity of Muslims in Chicago, obvious to anyone who has taken cabs, and their contributions to civic life, Mujahid noted that people of faith were the first to respond to 2004 tsunami: an Indian Imam had begun performing last rites according to the person’s faith, such that the bureaucrats largely played a supportive role upon arrival.

Rivetna fleshed out the mention in SV’s historic WPR speech of his persecuted Zoroastrian diaspora having found early refuge in India and clarified some of its basic tenets. Looking around at the ochre-robed monks, Premawardhana declared that “forced poverty is what we have to fight against, whereas voluntary poverty is what religious people have to embrace.” Invoking the assembly of Orthodox and Protestant representatives in the World Council of Churches, he emphasized the power of organized religion to effectuate socio-political change. The Orthodox Church has succeeded in having a single bishop recognized across the two Koreas. Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee organized Christians and Muslims to bring down together the tyrannical Liberian regime of Charles Taylor and elect Africa’s first woman President. Religious organizations should “do all things together, except when deep differences of convictions oblige us to work separately,” the Protestant representative said.

Hema Pokharna spoke of Mahavira’s teaching and respect for even non-human life as exemplary, and underlined the influence of Jaina values on Mahatma Gandhi, especially through his mentor Shrimad Rajchandra. Veerchand Gandhi represented Jainism at WPR. Jains do not see anyone as enemy and Jina means “spiritual conqueror.” The (Hindu) concept of God as creator, preserver, and destroyer of the world does not exist. “Non-absolutism” (anekantavada) or the relativity of truth, so central to the Jaina worldview, underpins all harmony and allows us to step into a universe of possibilities, even when it comes to selling shoes to barefoot Africans.

How to relate constructively to other religious traditions despite exclusive and conflicting truth claims has remained a central concern of Judaism, said Rabbi Balinski: “How to look at another religion from within one’s own tradition? Does God protect only Israel and not other nations?” he asked, citing a 3rd century rabbinical commentary on a biblical passage posing this very question. Instead of a hermeneutics of suspicion we need one of compassion. At the same time, Balinski warned of the danger of collapsing borders between (particularistic) religious traditions.

Instead of what the West could do to alleviate the misery of the Indian poor, American convert Pravrajika Saradeshaprana’s speech on “Why Swami Vivekananda is Relevant Today?” focused on the needy men and women in contemporary America. We internalize the limitations projected upon us by others, as exemplified by the 30% of women across all faith communities, who suffer domestic violence and psychological abuse, and thus end up believing themselves unworthy of love. Such self-defeating attitudes and behaviors are transmitted down generationally. The antidote to this is SV’s insistence on our inherent worth and the power of self-transformation, as implemented by the work of VVS among the homeless who are more visible in warm California. Those who have transcended their overwhelming circumstances in the depressed inner cities almost invariably point to an inspirational and nurturing figure that restored their faith in themselves. Endowed with overflowing compassion from an early age, SV experienced hunger, rejection, unemployment, immigration, racism, and bigotry at first hand; his sister had committed suicide. Generosity conforming to his vision should be three-tiered: comprising food (particularly at this time when food stamps are being cut back), education (illiteracy is 60% among adults in the US prison system, 80% among youth) especially for women, and spiritual teaching. SV democratized Hinduism, opening it up to men and women of all faiths, into an export religion. Considering the paucity of monastics in most countries, she also reaffirmed SV’s faith in householders. The average working couple has no time to perform lengthy rituals, so work could instead serve as worship such that all of life becomes holy.

Consul General of India to Chicago Dr. Ausaf Sayeed declared that there is no place like India for unity-in-diversity as has become evident through his extensive travels across the subcontinent. He contrasted this to the interdenominational violence witnessed during his stint as ambassador to Yemen, where a peaceful gathering of religious scholars was attacked by an opposing sect.

The following panel comprised retrospectives on the Vedanta Movement in Fiji, Russia, and the United States. Swami Aparokshananda from Fiji recounted how Kuppuswami, a devotee of Ramakrishna, formed an association on the latter’s birthday to protect the rights of indentured Indian laborers that subsequently became the nucleus of the Ramakrishna Movement there. Levels of poverty have increased in the island after the exodus of business classes and skilled workers providing much scope for social work. Russian-born and Moscow-based Swami Vidishananda said there had been no room for religion for 70 years under the post-Oct 17 Revolution state ideology of dialectical materialism and subsequent nationalist proclivities. The Vedanta movement began barely 20 years ago and the Society was registered only in 1995. Romain Rolland’s 1936 volume on Ramakrishna and SV was not published in Russia till 1991, but attracted much interest thereafter. Swami Ranganathananda was invited by Soviet scholars to lecture in Moscow and Leningrad in 1961, but restrictions are still imposed on “non-traditional” religions. The originally independent St. Petersburg center was inspired in late 1990 by the visit of then Secretary of Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture. Moscow center was established the following year at the invitation of Soviet Academy of Sciences by Swami Jyotirupananda, who animates both centers and Vedanta movement in Russia since 1991, renewing the interest in Indian spirituality that had been awakened at the turn of the 19th century by the WPR.

Speaking on “Vedanta Movement in America,” Dr. Hal French observed that this was the “Year of India” in many ways, citing the spring release at his University of South Carolina of the multi-volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism, of which he is an Editor. Swami Vivekananda’s three gifts were his high evaluation of Man, freedom (sannyasa as liberating vagabondage), and mutual respect and harmony among faiths that underlies today’s courses in comparative religion.

The following panel was also on “Help, Assimilation, and Harmony” but from intra-Hindu points of view. Swami Prapannananda spoke on Vaishnavism, how some of its themes and qualities are reflected in Vivekananda’s teachings. He dwelt on the songs of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Narsi Mehta’s “Vaishnava Jana” and Tulsidas’ Ram Dhun, the latter two songs being especially beloved of Mahatma Gandhi. Swami Shantarupananda, who expressed some bewilderment at having been assigned Tantra as his topic, attempted to explain this “most neglected branch of Indian religions” to the uninitiated. In contrast to the Advaita Vedanta path of world-negation (neti neti), supreme reality for Tantra, which embraces the dark side of human nature, is the “power of consciousness” (cit-shakti). He distinguished three paths based on differing tendencies within Tantra itself: the “animal” (pashu) transgressively exploiting the five M’s (parched grain, fish, meat, wine, and woman) but with a view towards transcendence, the “divine” (divya) practiced by Ramakrishna culminating in insight into the unity of religions, and the dangerously “heroic” (veera) that he left unelaborated. Though taught in 64 tantric methods by his guru, the brahmin woman, to raise the serpent-power (kundalini), Ramakrishna did not resort to the last 2 M’s. At the same time, this supreme Goddess-worshipper defended its legitimacy before a Goswami’s denunciations by pointing out that accomplished Vaishnavas do not condemn Shakti.

Following up on Vedanta, Swami Chetanananda noted that SV, who alone was invited to address the WPR on six different occasions, shook Indians out of their sense of inferiority. His great gift to the world was the (formulation of the) four yogas, divinity of man, unity of all things, and harmony of religions. The four sources of the latter are the scriptures, the lived testimony of his guru Ramakrishna, the internal diversity of Hinduism, and his own experience. India has helped other religions by offering refuge to the persecuted from other nations. Organization is Satan’s temptation to religion that has been challenged by mystics of all faiths. America is the best place to teach Vedanta because of its attachment to freedom and democracy.

General Secretary of Ramakrishna Mission Swami Suhitanandaji’s discourse was titled “For One’s Own Liberation and Welfare of the World.” He described the progression of desire from the survival instinct, through hedonism and craving for recognition, to hunger for knowledge and quest for liberation. Capitalism cannot survive in its current form but has to go beyond economics and take subtler dimensions of human existence into account. The approach must now be international and start from the mental as opposed to physical plane, insisting on truth-speaking, mastery of the senses, and helping others. Atheist Robert Wright’s quest has culminated in espousing the pluralism of the Upanishads (ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti). He reiterated Mata Amritanandamayi’s suggestion at the opening benedictory session that India should impose an immersion program of selfless service for graduates. “They loved me, and I also loved them,” SV had said of the Americans, while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has characterized him as the “tallest figure of his age who had transformed history.”

Between the panels were appropriate musical interludes. Sacred Waters Kirtan Group from South Bend, Ind., performed American-style bhajans. Ranajay Ganguly sang a devotional song, as did Sampa Biswas and Supriya Mukhopadhyaya of the Chicago Bengali Society. Having sung a bhajan, Swami Pareshananda from Argentina recited an English poem and chanted a Spanish hymn for SV, followed by a Hindi ditty composed in his honor as Shiva manifest. Sisters Lajja Patel and Tulsi Patel performed the “dance of bliss” (ananda tandava), choreographed by Vijaya Lakshmi Shetty, in adoration of Lord Shiva at Chidambaram.
After the vote of thanks, Ishatmananda concluded the commemorations with a congregational closing song “Get up O my Brethren…see Swamiji by your side” that he had composed. The next morning the monastics were again bused to downtown for a tour of various sites associated with Swami Vivekananda before bidding farewell to Chicago after having answered his call.

Photo captions for Chicago Calling (Nov. 10) at Hilton (in order of priority):
1) #041 = Interfaith panel 1 (L to R): Father Donald Senior (Catholic), Abdul Malik Mujahid (Islamic), Rohinton Rivetna (Zoroastrian), and Shanta Premawardhana (Protestant).
2) #060 = Interfaith panel 2 (L to R): Hema Pokharna (Jain), Consul General of India Ausaf Sayyid, Pravrajika Saradeshaprana (Vedantic), and Rabbi Michael Balinsky (Judaic).
3) #110 = Retrospectives on Vedanta Movement (L to R): Swami Vidishananda (Russia), Swami Aparokshananda (Fiji), Dr. Hal French (America) at podium; looking on is the panel of senior Swamis: Chetanananda, Suhitanandaji, and Ishatmananda.
4) #117 = Panel on intra-Hindu dialogue (L to R): Prapannananda (Vaishnavism, Shantarupananda (Tantra), Pareshananda (singing bhajan at podium), Chetanananda (Vedanta), Suhitanandaji, Ishatmananda, and MC Octavia Harrison.
5) #024 = Asim Chaudhuri delivers keynote address; Swami Atmajnanananda is seated (R).
6) #010 = Swami Dayamrita conveying blessings of Ma Amrtanandamayi
7) #090 = Formal group photo of monastics
8) #008 = Front rows of monastics listening to their peers at the Daias