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