Indian Monk's Appeal Still Resonates After 120 Years: Choudhury

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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Almost 120 years ago, on Sept. 11, 1893, a young Indian man, clad in saffron robes, stood up at a massive gathering in Chicago and delivered one of the most rousing and frequently quoted speeches of modern religious history. The speaker's name was Narendranath Datta, but in India he went by Swami Vivekananda, and this is how he is now remembered. The event was the first-ever World Parliament of Religions, a visionary attempt to start a global dialogue among people of all faiths.

Vivekananda's speech, and his subsequent work in the U.S. promoting the school of Hinduism called Vedanta, made him the first Indian to significantly impact the American cultural consciousness. Touring the country widely after his Chicago speech, Vivekananda opened a view in America of Hinduism, and Indian civilization, as something much more complex and vigorous than had been granted so far. As the commemorative plaque in Vivekananda's honor installed in 1995 at the Art Institute of Chicago, where Vivekananda made his speech, says, "His unprecedented success (at the Parliament) opened the way for the dialogue between Eastern and Western religions."

Although the conference was called the World Parliament of Religions, it was in truth hastily conceived as an adjunct to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas. It was attended mostly by American Christians, who also did most of the speaking. The participation of Muslims was small, and Vivekananda himself came to the conference as the sole representative of Hinduism. What did Vivekananda say that has endured when so much else of what was transacted at the event has faded away? Indeed, it has perhaps not just endured, but may be even more relevant to our current moment in history than it was to its own.

Briefly, Vivekananda spoke not just -- as he was expected to do -- about the splendor of his own religion, Hinduism, but also about the need for people in a globalizing world to accept that no single religious tradition had a monopoly over religious truth. He declared:

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 am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. [...]

I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: "As the different streams having their sources in 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, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." Sectarianism, bigotry, and its 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.

Or, to put it another way, Vivekananda put before his American, mainly Christian, audience the question that cannot be avoided by both religious and secular thinkers all around the world today after the fading away of the illusion, briefly held towards the close of the 20th century, that we live in a post-religious world. The question is about what it means, as a person of faith, to think about other religions and the deeply held beliefs of others. Is the faith of another to be thought of, publicly or privately, as something inferior to one's own, or even of no validity altogether? Is it to be "tolerated" as somebody else's point of view, as a concession to diversity? Accepted as the equal of one's own faith? But how would that attitude then co-exist with one's own professed religious commitment? Is not to participate in the life of another faith to diminish one's own? And how can such participation or empathy be distinguished from a flabby relativism, an attitude of religious laissez-faire?

Almost as important as what we believe, Vivekananda suggested, is what we believe about what others believe. As the nations of the world grow ever more multi-religious, the attitude we take in all honesty toward the religious Other becomes an ever more urgent question, even in -- perhaps especially in -- countries committed to religious liberty such as India and the U.S. Again, this question is especially relevant within the doctrine and practice of the great monotheistic traditions, but no one can dispute that even a more pluralistic tradition, like Hinduism, has today fallen prey in its interfaith attitudes to the temptations of monotheistic arrogance.

The question raised so powerfully by Vivekananda is one that, as a practicing Hindu, I've often thought about. My thinking owes much to a writer who has thought seriously about the matter as a practicing Christian. In her splendid 1993 memoir "Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras," Diana Eck, a Christian scholar of Hinduism at Harvard University (where she heads an initiative called the Pluralism Project), writes about how being a believer at the turn of the 20th century is different from being a believer in any of the centuries past. In a chapter called "Frontiers of Encounter," Eck observed:

What is new today is not the diversity of our religious traditions nor the task of interpretation. What is new is our sharply heightened awareness of religious diversity in every part of our world and the fact that today everyone -- not just the explorers, the missionaries, the diplomats, and the theologians -- encounters and needs to understand people and faiths other than their own. [...] For much of the world's population, our religious ghettos are gone or almost gone, and the question of how we respond to religious difference is unavoidable. Some may retreat into voluntary isolation again, claiming the loyalties of religion, ethnicity, race, or language ever more insistently, but the exigencies of an interdependent world will not permit such a response for long.

[...] People of many religious traditions speak of God in the singular or of gods in the plural. Some, like many Buddhists, resolutely refuse to speak of God or gods, either one. While it may be easy enough for Christians to apprehend the Muslim monotheistic understanding of God, the questions becomes more difficult when we encounter traditions like those of the Hindus, in which God is spoken of in the plural, under many names, or the Buddhist tradition, in which God is not spoken of at all. Whether our friends of other faiths do or don't speak of God or gods, it is important for us as Christians to apprehend as best as we can what they mean by "God" or "gods" or "no-God." This will sharpen our own operative understandings of God as well.

[...] Theologian Gordon Kaufman writes, "Theology is not merely a rehearsal and translation of tradition; it is (and always has been) a creative activity of the human imagination seeking to provide a more adequate orientation for human life." Among the urgent tasks of theology today is to confront seriously the challenge of religious pluralism...

And in a recent piece called "What Vivekananda Valued," the political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote about the relevance of Vivekananda in the context of the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of his birth early next year:

Vivekananda does have a pride of place in the massive transformation of Indian self-consciousness. He was, to use, Auden’s phrase, a whole climate of opinion, an object of admiration for figures as diverse as [Mahatma] Gandhi, [Rabindranath] Tagore and [Subhash Chandra] Bose. There is the sheer force of his personality and the power of his words. There is also something deeply elegiac about the intellectual journey he crafted. [...]

[One of Vivekananda's achievements] was to recast the modern Indian project as the creation of an alternative universality. The legitimacy of the Indian enterprise would forever be measured by the fact that it was tethered to values: a theological openness, toleration in the highest sense of the term and pluralism. He directed India towards a liberality by reminding us that it was god’s job to protect us, not ours to protect our gods. [...] "We want to lead mankind to a place where there is neither the Vedas, nor the Bible, nor the Koran, yet this has to be done by harmonising the Vedas, the Bible, the Koran.” Whatever one may think of this project, the idea that each tradition could reach to some place outside itself, by working through all traditions, was a sign of intellectual ambition that is now all but lost.

As the efforts to mark Vivekananda's birth gather steam, Chicago, as much as any site in India, has emerged as a center of the movement. Last month the Indian government announced that it would provide a grant of $1.5 million to the University of Chicago to establish a Vivekananda Chair for Indian studies. The prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, has, meanwhile, added to his onerous list of duties by taking up the post of chairman of the National Committee for the Celebration of the 150th Birth Anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. The minutes of the committee's first meeting reported that:

The Chairman recalled that Swami Vivekananda's famous lecture at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago on 11th September 1893 was a shining moment in India's cultural history. As the State of Chicago perhaps did not allow memorials of people who were not American citizens, we have to ponder on some other way of commemorating this event, at the place where it happened. The Indian American community could be urged to find creative ways of doing so.

Perhaps the prime minister need not have sounded so gloomy, or have left so much upon the shoulders of "the Indian American community." Meanwhile, The Telegraph reported that Vivekananda and the cinema were going to come together at long last:

The Ramakrishna Math and Mission [of India] will produce a biopic on Swami Vivekananda to mark the 150th birth anniversary of the monk. A committee set up to oversee the project is looking for a renowned director and a major production house from across the globe for the film, which the mission authorities want to release before Swamiji’s 150th birthday on January 12, 2013. [...]

“We have suggested that the film be made on a grand scale, like that of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi,” said [film director] Goutam Ghose. “There should be an international collaboration for the project and I have suggested the name of Bernardo Bertolucci for director,” added the maker of Moner Manush.

A film on the life of Vivekananda to be scripted, shot and released before Jan. 12, 2013? Clearly the monks of the Ramakrishna Math have some way to go before they understand the mechanics of film-making and distribution. Much of the film would have to be shot in America, to which Vivekananda gave some of the best of his 39 years. It's perhaps no surprise that Vivekananda's message went down so well in the U.S. As Ann Louis Bardach wrote in a piece in the New York Times last year, "His prescription for life was simple, and perfectly American: 'work and worship.'" But as for the larger message of Sept. 11, 1893,-- that of the importance of religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue -- that seems to be receding ever further in our post-Sept. 11 age.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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