Swami Vivekananda the monk who addressed the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 with a simple but amazing speech that earned him a standing ovation just after the opening words:
“Sisters and Brothers of America…”, continues to inspire millions across the globe, with his message about the oneness of existence, the divinity of the soul, and the harmony of religions.
When I was a kid I admired his great oratory skills but it was much later that I realized the remarkable contribution he had made to the world by inspiring a band of missionaries, dedicating their lives to
serving the poor and downtrodden, helping eradicate illiteracy among women, giving the rich a life purpose of finding happiness by serving others. The latter was a pursuit of happiness that material pleasures could not provide.
I was extremely fortunate to be asked to help out by playing the role of Vivekananda at short notice, in a skit at the Delaware Hindu temple, when a professional actor who was originally invited to
play the role, could not make it on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary event.
Just after I had valiantly accepted to do the role – I realized that I had less than a week left before the event. All of a sudden I felt a sense of panic looking at the script that I had been given to
memorize. When was the last time I had memorized anything? Except maybe login
passwords, and I manage to forget even those. Not to mention the nervousness of
playing the role of such a strong historic personality that almost everyone
respects and has a strong preconceived image of. And the uncertainty
of the few virtual rehearsals with the other participants. And of course the
unwieldiness of the costume. Slowly it dawned on me that I had made a huge
mistake by accepting the role.
But as I slept over it, the idea felt less like a mistake and more like a nice and juicy challenge that I was going to enjoy cracking through. It was not so bad after all. I mean if I didn’t remember
my lines, I was going to “wing it” anyway. Many years of singing and dancing in
front of all kinds of audiences with boring PowerPoint slides, should at least
keep me standing on my feet till the end. I told myself if people didn’t like
it, it was their problem, not mine. Having convinced myself that this was
actually a good situation I was in, I started reading Romain Rolland’s book on
Vivekananda’s life and began rehearsing the script in the morning hours during
my otherwise boring workouts.
As I read about the influence Vivekananda had especially in America and Europe, an impact great enough to inspire some of them to devote their lives to the upliftment of the poor and to enhancing
the lives of poor illiterate women, I realized that Vivekananda had diligently
followed his own teachings – he had devoted an infinite amount of energy,
enthusiasm, daring and patience, to accomplish the great deeds.
It is truly amazing how he could inspire so many people towards a common cause. For example he met Ms Greenstidel in New York who was so inspired that later she became Sister Christine and joined the
Mission in India. He met Ms Margaret Nobel in London who later became a sincere and staunch disciple, assumed the name of Sister Nivedita and helped run schools for poor
women. There were many others such as Mr & Mrs Sevier, Mr Sturdy, Mr Goodwin, Ms Henrietta Muller - all of them followed Vivekananda back to India and devoted their lives and their resources to the Mission.
With the support of my family and the encouragement of my friends - the skit was a great success. All the lines were delivered smoothly. The synchronization with the participants was perfect. The costume was a big hit. People walked up to congratulate us.
As I changed back into regular clothes, I wondered to myself - All this happened more than a hundred years ago. Is Vivekananda’s message relevant today?
Well, the world may have changed and will continue to change, but the teachings of Vivekananda (Vedanta) are relevant even today. His message is simple:
- Be strong and steadfast in your journey, be prepared to weather any passing storm
- Aim for the highest, and you shall reach the highest
- Be a hero, always say ‘I have no fear’
- The greatest religion is to be true to your own nature. Have faith in yourselves!
As we witness a great deal of violence and unrest in the world, I think back
to the immediate relevance today of Vivekananda’s speech 120 years ago at the
Parliament of World Religions. Here is how he had ended his great
“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. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that
the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the
death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the
pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the
“Look that’s where we were standing yesterday!” I exclaimed
pointing through the stone grills of the windows while crossing inside the
covered Bridge of Sighs in Venice. It was a beautiful view of Venice through the
peep-holes between the stone bars of the little windows. One could see dozens of
tourists outside taking pictures of this famous white limestone bridge. Many
were viewing it while standing on the Ponte della Paglia (another bridge) just
like we had done the previous day. What a fine example of bridge architecture
and what an amazing difference of perspective from inside and outside, I
thought to myself.
The Bridge of Sighs is a beautiful covered bridge arching high
above the canal, connecting the Doge’s Palace to the Prison. It was built around
the year 1600 to connect the interrogation rooms in the Palace to the new
prison that had been built across the river. The most senior elected officials
of Venice resided in the Palace. The Palace has preserved the various chambers
and the Doge’s apartments including the great works of art on the ceilings and
The old prison cells in the ground floor of the Palace were
found inadequate, so a new prison was built that had more light and was better
ventilated. The convicts who were sentenced would cross the bridge to the new
prison. It is believed that the bridge got its name as prisoners would “sigh” as
they got one last glimpse of beautiful Venice through the windows of the
Venice is perhaps the most beautiful and the most romantic city
in Europe. A group of 118 islands separated by canals and linked by bridges, it
is built miraculously on a marshy lagoon. With a great history of Renaissance
art and world leading commerce, Venice has been sinking 4 inches every century.
It is listed as a World Heritage site.
The British poet Lord Byron who lived in Italy for 7 years, once
wrote: "I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs, a palace and prison on each
hand". As per legend - if a couple kisses under this bridge on a gondola at
sunset, as the bells of St Mark’s Campanile toll, they would be granted eternal
Is the bridge named after the sigh-ing of the prisoners or the
sigh-ing of the lovers?!
It is hard to tell which version is the real reason for the
naming of the bridge. Perhaps both versions are accurate and it really depends
on your position with respect to the bridge. One could be inside the enclosed
bridge sighing while looking at beautiful Venice through the stone bars, or one
could be outside on the river floating under the bridge on a gondola sighing in
a romantic mood.
Many movies have been shot in Venice over the years. In the 1979
romantic comedy “A Little Romance” starring Laurence Olivier, based on the novel
E=mc2 Mon Amour, a French boy and an American girl journey to Venice, where they
hope to seek eternal love under the Bridge of Sighs. Laurence Olivier, one of
the greatest English actors, was 72 at the time of the movie and he played the
kind but seasoned pick pocketeer who shares the legend of the Bridge of Sighs
with the unsuspecting young boy and girl. Incidentally, Laurence Olivier acted
in another Venice based movie when he played Shylock in the 1973 drama “The
Merchant of Venice” based on William Shakespeare’s famous
The super hit 1964 Bollywood movie “Sangam”, starring Raj Kapoor
and Vyjayanthimala, was shot in Venice. The duo are shown spending a perfect
honeymoon together, playing with the pigeons on St Mark’s square in one scene,
floating on the grand canal past the Doge’s palace on a gondola, in another
scene. It was Raj Kapoor’s first color film, and this movie started the
Bollywood trend of shooting song sequences in scenic foreign places. Raj Kapoor
attracted a world-wide audience. “Desperado Square”, a 1992 movie from Israel
pays tribute to Raj Kapoor’s movie “Sangam” as the characters reminisce “the
Coming back to the Bridge of Sighs, it is possible that the
prisoner, who sighed while crossing the bridge, saw through the windows his own
prior youthful self, basking in the bright freedom outside.
It is quite possible that the prisoner worried about his future,
sighing at the view and envying the people outside who seemed to be enjoying the
world at that moment. The people outside, perhaps not knowing that they were
being watched, may have worried that the perfect fleeting moment was passing too
soon, sighing as they looked up and wondered at the timelessness of the bridge.
It is hard to tell who is not a prisoner.
But the bridge remains the same: beautiful, distant, mysterious.
“Heyyy…where’s my wallet???!!!” I exclaimed in a high decibel
voice as I suddenly felt my left front pocket to be much lighter than usual. I
realized that my wallet was missing. We had just entered the noisy and crowded
Metro train at the Rome Termini station. It was a hot and humid Friday evening
in the month of July, and the train was packed with peak hour commuting traffic.
In a wild movement filled with panic I spun around slapping my hands on my
pockets. But there was no wallet to be found. The wallet had cash, credit cards,
keys and ID. Oh Gawd. This couldn’t be happening to me.
In my delirious state of mind, I did notice two people step off
the train as the automatic doors closed. Two innocent looking young people who
could not board the train due to the traffic. Or so it seemed. But most probably
they were two pickpockets working in tandem, who had just targeted a weird
looking tourist. Should I try to stop the train? Should I inform the police?
I had experienced a different kind of pick pocketing earlier
that week, when I received a very rude email from the Rome hotel reservation
while we were still in Florence. It said that our hotel reservation was
cancelled due to some credit card issues, and that I needed to rebook the rooms
at the current rates, which were 30% higher than the rate that I had originally
purchased them for. And if I did not rebook the rooms, they would still keep
the non-refundable deposit anyway. I had no option but to rebook the rooms at
the same hotel as it was very late to find another comparable hotel. Before I
could let myself analyze the situation any further – I said to myself in a
funny voice: Hello! They already have our non-refundable deposit!
While giving my new credit card details on the phone, I had
shared a piece of my mind with the manager at the desk. Without mincing any
words I told her that I thought this whole thing was nothing but daylight
robbery. And that I was so upset that I was going to make sure this was known in
all possible internet chat forums and travel websites. This was even worse than
pick pocketing I had said.
At least the pick pocketeers know they are stealing and they run
away from the scene. They do not stand there brazenly to tell you on your face
that you are a tourist and by the time you bring a case against them, you would
leave the country, and the case would be dismissed.
Well guess what – when we checked into the hotel, there was a 3
page letter of apology and we were informed that the earlier rate was going to
be applied. Hah!
In Greek mythology the Gods have many different roles. Hermes is
not only the Thief, but also the Merchant, the Shepherd and the Athlete to name
a few of his varied roles. Since Hermes stole the cattle belonging to his elder
brother Apollo, myth has it that he is the God of the thieves. However there is
a lot of debate as to whether Hermes was really adept in trickery and that the
stealing part was only a manifestation of his cunningness! In “Hermes the Thief”
Norman Brown argues that Hermes has mental prowess as opposed to physical
strength, he is a cunning trickster, and a “hero” of stealthy appropriation.
Oh well – if stealthy appropriation is heroic then stealing
doesn’t seem to be that bad then, or is it? Can certain special circumstances
justify the act of stealing? Ah, this is so confusing.
In the movie “Mission Impossible” Ethan Hunt (played by Tom
Cruise) is an agent working on a mission. When things go wrong, he has to
"steal" confidential material from the headquarters of the CIA. Remember the
catchy music when he is in the midst of stealing, while suspended from the roof
into a heavily guarded CIA fortress?! Well, that is acceptable one might say due
to the circumstances.
I am reminded of the speech I heard from a glorified ex-thief at
a corporate event. It was given by Nick Leeson, the Rogue Trader who caused the
biggest financial scandal of the 20th century. He caused the collapse of Barings
Bank while trading in Singapore with an un-monitored slush fund that nobody in
the bank knew or cared about. Nick was sentenced to six and half years in a
Singapore jail. Nick’s story triggered a movie “Rogue Trader” written and
directed by James Dearden, starring Ewan McGregor and Anna Friel. It was
released one month prior to Nick's release from prison.
Nick has not only survived this episode in his life, he has
thrived based on this experience. People need his advice more than ever. As the
recent Financial Crisis showed, and as Enron and WorldCom have shown, the
business world is full of loopholes that are the target of rogue traders. And an
ex-rogue trader could be the best advisor to try and help close these loopholes.
Nick now lives happily in Ireland with a second wife and three
children. His experience was so valuable that he was appointed CEO of a company.
He stepped down after 5 years and now he is a speaker at conferences advising
organizations on governance, risk-management and compliance!
Moral of the story – Rogues can redeem themselves, and can make
a ton of money while doing so.
What the pick pocketeers can physically steal is perhaps just a
rounding error compared to what white collar criminals steal through rogue
trading in financial markets. Compared to these white collar crimes, pick
pocketing is perhaps just the “icing on the take”!
“Look...that is your wallet!” said someone next to me. The train
had just stopped at a station and many people had disembarked. With less people
around I now looked clearly at the floor of the train, and sure as ever, my
wallet was lying there on the side. It was lying half open with one of the
credit cards loosely falling out of it.
I swooped down like an angry bird and recovered my prized wallet
from the floor, dusting it, caressing it, comforting it. All was intact – as I
looked inside the wallet to my utmost relief. Apparently the pick pocketeer had
panicked and thrown the wallet on the floor before stepping off the train,
especially when I had clapped my pockets wildly, and started creating a hue and