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Our journey with Swami Vivekananda

By Malay Mishra

Part 1

The journey referred to in the headline began on a much misunderstood and, may I say, maligned note. A general observation, made of all Hindu societies in the context of assessing the relevance of Swami Vivekananda and his Vedantic thoughts on the occasion of his 150th birth anniversary, was made light of. Since it all began with an Express reporter's inquisitiveness (January 5) as to what I meant exactly, let me clear the air by coming directly to the point.

My reference to present-day Hinduism, a religion which, unlike any other, has surmounted the vicissitudes of time and come out stronger, must have had some strong points inherent in itself. That, in my view, is its philosophy which is universal, all-inclusive and embracing and that which appeals to and transcends all other religious beliefs. And that is Vedanta or Upanishads, the kernel of Hindu philosophy, for which India is known the world over and through the ages.

My reference was also to a certain section of priests and pundits who, I feel, and in this I am joined by a good part of this country's intelligentsia and the younger generation, have led gullible masses with their superior knowledge in conducting rituals. I must make it clear that I have never decried rituals or belittled pundits. In fact my grandfather was a noted pundit (scholar) of his time and much of his scholarly inheritances have come down to me through my father, who was a pundit of no less renown. The fact that the organising committee of Swami Vivekananda's 150th birth anniversary celebrations was chaired by a pundit who is an extremely erudite, intelligent and articulate person of great merit, says it all.

I have always believed, taking my inspiration from Swami Vivekananda, that every religion in the world has three essential components — philosophy, mythology and rituals — and each complements the others. It is therefore but logical that religion cannot neglect one for the others, otherwise the religion would risk decadence and decay. The same for Hinduism too, at the beginning of the 21st century, when it needs to be evaluated in the context of a rational and scientific environment and questions have to be answered instead of being swept under the carpet or the questioners being browbeaten under a cloak of arrogance and deceit.

It is against this backdrop that Swami Vivekananda needs to be evaluated if we have to discuss the relevance of his message. And that we did, over six days of interaction with the Trinidad population through a diverse range of activities.

Starting with an exhibition of books, pictures and posters and a pictorial depiction of Swamiji's life — all resources brought from India — we presented a cultural programme in the Bisram Gopie Auditorium of the Divali Nagar, sanctified by the presence of Swamiji himself with a serene bust of the master right at the entrance. It was a reminder of the celebrations at the same venue marking the centenary of the Swamji's address at the Chicago Parliament of Religions where, for the first time ever, the western world was exposed to the philosophy of Hinduism through the principles of Vedanta. And the Upanishads had found their greatest voice.

Imbued with the teachings of his "illiterate" master, Sri Ramakrishna, a person seeped in the "jnana" (knowledge) of the ancient Shastras (spiritual texts), whom the great French savant Romain Rolland had described as the "consummation of two thousand years of the spiritual life of three hundred million peoples", the new message of the soul, the symphony of India, Swami Vivekananda had burst forth at the Chicago Parliament representing a universal religion, a religion with which each of the 3,000 delegates could identify.

In all seven sessions that he addressed, Swamiji was the last to speak, lest people not walk out of the Parliament. Such was his arresting charm, his awesome personality. To him religion was a means to salvation through social service and serving the basic needs of the poorest, the "Daridra Narayana" (God's poor) and also to fill the spiritual vacuum of the material West with loftiest thoughts of the human mind.

Here was a man who was admirably linking the East and the West through Hinduism, the mother of all religions, not through empty rituals. They had been shunned and relegated to the margins of a hackneyed ideology but the brilliance of Hinduism shone forth all over America and England by the time the Swami had finished his first pilgrimage to the West.

His return to India was tumultuous as he addressed the multitudes in Colombo, Madras, Ramnad and countless other places in southern India with his stirring call, "Arise, Awake and Stop not until the goal is reached".

This, then, was our motto — the immortal verse of the Kathopanishad — and artiste after artiste, young and old, sang, recited, danced and set to music the vibrations of those eternal words as the entire Bisram Gopie Auditorium at the Divali Nagar was moved to ecstasy. (Concludes tomorrow).

* Malay Mishra is India's High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago

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