Monday, July 11, 2005

Swami Vivekananda: His Life and His Message

I had to present a speech on Swami Vivekananda in my Vedanta Center on 4th of July (Swamiji's samadhi day). Here is a transcript I prepared. It went off really well and people actually applauded when I was done! Here you go...

Good morning everyone…and wish you all a very happy 4th of July. My topic for today is about Swami Vivekananda: His Life AND His Message. Now…a few months back we started the Vivekananda Study Circle…here in the Center. We meet every Sunday at 4:00 PM and Swami C acts as our guide and moderator…and that’s really wonderful because Swami shares a lot of juicy titbits from Swamiji’s life…which is hard to find elsewhere!

It’s really very inspiring…so I encourage all of you to try to attend…at least one of these sessions if you can. And by the way…that was my sales pitch for the day!

I remember the first time we approached Swami about the Study Circle. We had our own ideas about…you know…what material we should use to begin the class with. I was like “Swami…I think we should start with Inspired Talks”…”no no no”…someone else said…”Let’s start with the letters of Swamiji!”…”No!” chimed another…I think it was Sriram…”How about Talks with Vivekananda!?!”

Swami C…in his graciousness…listened to all our suggestions very patiently…but his look said it all. He was probably thinking…*sigh*…And these guys are my disciples? Arey baap re baap!!!…”. I am just kidding Swami…

Well…he simply said…”I think we should start with something a little more basic. How about beginning with the The Life of Swamiji?…because you know what…his life WAS his message!” And that was it! So simple and yet so profound. His life WAS indeed his message!

So when I first got this topic…His Life AND His message…I was faced with a problem…you see…Swamiji lived such an impossibly interesting, entertaining and complicated life that you can interpret a thousand messages off a single page from the book of his life. Swami N says it best when he says that Swamiji’s words are scriptures. Please note…not “like” scriptures but “are” indeed scriptures in themselves. And we all know how difficult it is to interpret scriptures…even though…in Swamiji’s case…it’s in a language that we are all familiar with.

So I had to select just one message that rang out loud and clear from everything I had read and heard of him so far…and THAT…was my difficulty. He stands for so many things!…how do I choose just one!?! But I had to. So I hit upon this very rudimentary approach…I call it the Bollywood approach because it is so dramatic…I closed my eyes and decided that the first thing that crosses my mind when I think of Swamiji…THAT will be the message closest to my heart…and that’s what I’ll speak about. So I did just that…I closed my eyes and thought of Swamiji…and his turbaned aristocratic image as a Hindoo Monk in Chicago…with his arms folded…floated through my mind. Immediately a bright neon flashing sign followed…with the words…”Bold AND Fearless!!!”. That was the thought! Bold AND Fearless!!! So I decided that to be Swamiji’s message for today’s talk.

To indicate how Swamiji’s life was his message applied in practice, I’ll quote a couple of passages from his works and narrate a few incidents from his life.

To begin with I would like to quote a passage from the diary of one of Swamiji’s foremost disciple… Sri Sharat Chandra Chakravarthy. These are Swamiji’s own words…

Those who are always down-hearted and dispirited in this life can do no work; from life to life they come and go wailing and moaning. “The earth is enjoyed by heroes” – this is the unfailing truth. Be a hero. Always say, “I have no fear.” Tell this to everybody – “Have no fear”. Fear is death, fear is sin, fear is hell, fear is unrighteousness, fear is wrong. All the negative thoughts and ideas that are in this world have proceeded from this evil spirit of fear. Therefore I say, “Be fearless, be fearless”

Swamiji lived this ideal of fearlessness even as a small child. When he was barely 8 years old…he used to visit a friend of his…whose family had a Champaka tree in their compound. The Champaka flowers are said to be liked by Shiva and were incidentally a favorite of Swamiji’s too. This was Swamiji’s favorite tree and he loved to dangle head down from it! One day as he was swinging from the tree, the old and nearly blind grandfather of the house recognized his voice and approached him. The old man was afraid that the boy might fall and hurt himself…or worse…that he might lose some of his precious Champaka flowers! He called Naren (which was Swamiji’s pre-monastic name) down and told him not to climb the tree again. “Why?” asked Naren. “Because”..the old man answered…”a Brahmadaitya (a ghost of a Brahmin) lives in that tree…and at night he goes about dressed all in white, and he is terrible to look at!” This was news to Naren, who wanted to know what else this Ghost could do besides wander about. The old man replied…”And he breaks the necks of those who climb the tree!”

Naren simply nodded and said nothing and the old man went away smiling to himself in triumph. As soon as he had gone some distance, Naren climbed the tree again and was dangling back in his former position. His friend…who was there all along…cried out…”Naren! The Brahmadaitya is sure to catch you and break your neck!” Naren laughed heartily and said…”What a silly fellow you are! Don’t believe everything just because someone tells you! If the old grandfather’s story were true…then my neck would have been broken long ago!”

And this was Swamiji as a young boy…Bold AND fearless with an exceptionally strong common sense!

Another interesting quote we find is from a reply to an address of welcome he gave at Paramakudi upon his return from the West. These were his words…

“If there is one word that you find coming out like a bomb from the Upanishads, bursting like a bomb-shell upon masses of ignorance, it is the word fearlessness. And the only religion that ought to be taught is the religion of fearlessness. Either in this world or in the world of religion, it is true that fear is the sure cause of degradation and sin. It is fear that brings misery, fear that brings death, fear that breeds evil. And what causes fear? Ignorance of our own true nature.”

Here he presents the real source for every fear that exists in this world. Ignorance of our own true nature. What IS our true nature? That we are one with Brahman…nay!…that we ARE Brahman…one without a second. If Brahman alone exists…and there is no second, then who will you fear? Fear arises the minute we feel that we are separate from God.

The incident which I am now going to narrate clearly illustrates what happens when we forget this truth. This took place during the Baranagore Math days…when Swamiji was about 25 years old.

One morning in Sarnath, after visiting the temple of Mother Durga, the Swami was passing through a place, where there was a large tank of water on one side and a high wall on the other. Here, he was surrounded by a troop of large monkeys. They were not willing to allow him to pass…and there was no other way. As he tried to walk past them, they howled and shrieked and clutched at his feet. As they pressed closer, he began to run; but the faster he ran, the bolder the monkeys got and they attempted to bite at him. When it seemed impossible for him to escape, he heard an old sannyasi calling out to him: “Face the brutes!” The words brought him to his senses. He stopped running and turned majestically to boldly face the irate monkeys. As soon as he did that, they fell back and fled! With reverence and gratitude he gave the traditional greeting to the sannyasi, who smilingly responded with the same, and walked away.

You know…every time I hear this story, I visualize the scene when Swamiji turns around to face the aggressive monkeys…and I can’t help but imagine the expression on the faces of all the monkeys grow from anger to that of sudden shock…and then confusion…and finally dawning into an expression of mortal fear of the man they were just chasing!

The hunter becomes the hunted. Bold AND fearless. That was Swamiji as a young man.

In a New York lecture years later, the Swami referred to this incident and pointed to its moral: “That is a lesson for all life – face the terrible, face it boldly. Like the monkeys, the hardships of life fall back when we cease to flee before them. If we are ever to gain freedom, it must be by conquering nature, never by running away. Cowards never win victories. We have to fight fear and troubles and (mark this word) “IGNORANCE” if we expect them to flee before us.”

I would like to narrate one more incident that highlights the extent of Swamiji’s boldness.

Once, during his days as a wandering monk in India, Swamiji was passing through Rajputana (which is present day Rajhasthan) in a train and was traveling with 2 Englishmen in the same compartment. They took him to be an ignorant monk and made jokes in English at his expense. The Swami sat as though he did not understand one word. When the train stopped at a station further on he asked the station-master in English for a glass of water. When his companions discovered that he knew English and had understood all that they had said, they were much embarrassed by their conduct and asked him why it was that he had not shown any sign of resentment. He replied…”My friends, this is not the first time I have seen fools.” The Englishmen got angry and showed fight. How dare a native insult them like this! But seeing the Swami’s strongly-built frame and his fearless undaunted spirit, they thought better of it and apologized to him.

This might appear to be a small incident but put in the right context, it was very remarkable what Swamiji did. India was being ruled by the British at that time and all natives were considered no better than slaves. This act of his could have easily landed him in a lot of trouble, but seeing his absolute disregard for fear…the Englishmen thought better of engaging with him any further.

Bold AND fearless…with a wit to match! That was Swamiji.

It’s very clear that Swamiji’s belief in fearlessness arose not only from studying the scriptures…but in large part through the various experiences in his life. He lived what he preached. His life was INDEED his message.

To illustrate this once more…I would like to end with the last part of a letter he sent to Swami Brahmananda from Muree in 1897. He says here…

“I bless you all with a full heart. May Mother enshrine Herself in your hearts as strength: the support that is fearlessness – May she make you all fearless. This I have seen in life – he who is over-cautious about himself, falls into dangers at every step; he who is afraid of losing honor and respect, gets only disgrace; he who is always afraid of loss, always loses…May all good attend you all.

Yours affectionately,

Thank You


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