Vivekananda and America

He who broke the barrier between East and West and placed the two on common ground is still a living force in both. Vivekananda's function was to bring in oneness where there had been none before, by carrying the best of each to the other. The East had become lost by moving away from materialism; the West, by steering clear of spirituality. A happy marriage of the two, he deeply felt, was the world's supreme need. Life without spirituality was as poor as life without material power, he believed. Hence he dynamised the East with the force of the West, and inspired the West with the ancient wisdom of the East.

It is foolish to think that he sailed for America to satisfy his mental curiosity. It is also an absurdity to believe that his feet touched foreign shores just so he could make a noise in the world. No! It was Sri Ramakrishna's silent blessing that kindled the inspiration-fire of this beloved disciple to share his Master's light with the soil and soul of America.

No country is superior to others in all spheres of life. Vivekananda, with his deeply penetrating insight, says: "As regards spirituality, the Americans are far inferior to us, but their society is far superior to ours." He showed how a happy and true union could be effected between the other-world-loving Indians and the this-world-loving Americans: "We will teach them our spirituality and assimilate what is best in their society."

Asia, Europe and America: each continent has made a contribution of its own to the world at large. With the help of his spirit's vision, Vivekananda revealed this truth: "Asia laid the germs of civilisation, Europe developed man, and America is developing woman and the masses."

It is an established fact that the women in America are the most advanced in the world, especially in the cultivation of knowledge. Vivekananda made a surprising observation: "The average American woman is far more cultivated than the average American man." He further added: "The men slave all their life for money and the women snatch every opportunity to improve themselves." His highest compliment to women came when he said: "I have seen thousands of women here whose hearts are as pure and stainless as snow." And again: "American women! A hundred lives would not be sufficient to pay my deep debt of gratitude to you! I have not words enough to express my gratitude to you."

However, he was also deeply indebted to American men. It was JH Wright, Professor of Greek at Harvard University, who was the first to realise who Vivekananda was. This was before the Indian monk had become a delegate to the Parliament of Religions, when he was almost destitute, no better than a street-beggar. Verily, Professor Wright, that blessed son of America, was a man of action. He introduced Vivekananda to the president of the Parliament in Chicago. The professor's flaming and instructive words have echoed and re-echoed in the hearts of both East and West: "To ask you, Swami, for your credentials is like asking the Sun to state its right to shine."

Vivekananda's soul-stirring addresses inspired the audience to have faith in all the religions of the world and to embrace the best in each religion. There was a magic spell of throbbing delight woven around his very name at the Parliament of Religions, and he was the figure that dominated the world's gaze there. A report appeared in the Boston Evening Transcript of September 30, 1893 about the great triumph of the Indian spiritual giant: "If he merely crosses the platform, he is applauded, and this marked approval of thousands he accepts in a childlike spirit of gratification, without a trace of conceit."

The same paper on April 5, 1894 had an irresistible recollection:

"At the Parliament of Religions, they used to keep Vivekananda until the end of the programme, to make people stay until the end of the session. On a warm day, when a prosy speaker talked too long and people began going home by hundreds, the chairman would get up and announce that Swami Vivekananda would make a short address just before the benediction. Then he would have the peaceful hundreds perfectly in tether. The four thousand fanning people in the Hall of Columbus would sit smiling and expectant, waiting for an hour or two of other men's speeches, to listen to Vivekananda for fifteen minutes."

In no time, America realised that Vivekananda was not any isolated dreamer; nor, unlike most spiritual figures of the East, did he care primarily for his own personal salvation. They discovered in him a lofty spiritual realist and a universal lover of humanity. It was his vast personality and his spiritual inspiration that achieved for him such acclaim in America. Vivekananda's credo was characterised by its freedom; thus the freedom-loving Americans responded enthusiastically to his message. They accepted his teaching that material prosperity and spiritual aspiration must run abreast and help each other if man is to see the full face of Divine Knowledge. It is indeed only when we live in this truth that we can bask in the glorious sunshine of the soul that is Vivekananda.