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Celebrating Vivekananda’s American Adventure on His 150th Birthday

book revIf you want to know India, study Vivekananda. 

—Rabindranath Tagore to Romain Rolland

The song really came from Swami Vivekananda, who said, ‘If there is a God, we must see him. And if there is a soul, we must perceive it.’

—George Harrison on the origins of “My Sweet Lord”

T he first chapter of Phillip Goldberg’s American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation; How Indian Spirtuality Changed the West (Doubleday 2010) opens by suggesting that the Beatles’ “extended stay” with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in February 1968 “may have been the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness.” Goldberg goes on to say that the resulting “media frenzy over the Fab Four made known to the sleek, sophisticated West that meek mysterious India had something of value. Our understanding and practice of spirituality would never be the same.”

While there’s no doubt that the Beatles played a major role in alerting American culture to the manifold riches of the subcontinent, I have a problem with Goldberg’s choice of words. “Something of value” doesn’t begin to say it, “mysterious India” is for travel brochures, and, above all, what does a word like “meek” have to do with the land associated with riots, juggernauts, and sadhus who can decapitate you with a look? Probably the best thing anyone said about the Beatles’ Indian venture was Ringo Starr’s comparison of the “momentous spiritual retreat” to “a Butlin’s holiday camp.” George Harrison, the one Beatle who found something  of lasting value in India, went beyond the Maharishi to the teachings of Vivekananda (1863-1902), the man who truly did bring India to the west.

Born Narendra Nath Datta in Calcutta 150 years ago, January 12, 1863, Vivekananda is the subject of A.L Bardach’s Wall Street Journal Magazine piece “What Did J.D. Salinger, Leo Tolstoy, and Sarah Bernhardt Have in Common?” wherein she takes the Beatles analogy full-circle. When Vivekananda greeted the audience at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair as “Sisters and brothers of America,” the response presaged “the phenomenon decades later that greeted the Beatles” as the “previously sedate crowd of 4,000-plus attendees rose to their feet and wildly cheered the visiting monk.”

“No doubt the vast majority of those present hardly knew why they had been so powerfully moved,” Christopher Isherwood writes some 50 years later. “A large gathering has its own strange kind of subconscious telepathy and this one must have been somehow aware that it was in the presence of that most unusual of beings, a man whose words express exactly what he is.”

Unknown

While the Beatles came to America in February 1964 atop a tidal wave of music and media, Vivekananda arrived in Chicago in July 1893 wholly unknown, with no credentials and very little money. Only after finally finding the entry bureau did he learn that the Parliament of Religions wouldn’t open until September, that it was too late to register, and worse yet, that he was not qualified to take part because he belonged to no known group. Using the last of his money, he took a train to Boston, where, being an imposing presence in his red turban and yellow robes belted with a scarlet sash, he caught the eye of a retired literature professor at Smith who invited him to her home; there, she introduced him to a professor at Harvard who wrote to the president of the Committee that Vivekananda should represent Hinduism at the Parliament. He then gave the 29-year-old pilgrim a ticket back to Chicago, where he landed dazed and disoriented, having lost the address of the Committee. When he asked for directions, he was rebuffed because of the color of his skin. Doors all over Chicago were slammed in the face of this bizarrely-attired “negro.” He was sitting in the street when he was noticed by a woman who gave him refuge, took him to the Parliament, where, as 1915 Nobel laureate Romain Rolland writes in Prophets of the New India (Boni 1930), “The unknown of yesterday, the beggar, the man despised for his color by a Mob” imposed “his sovereign genius.”

There he stood, “the young man who represented nothing—and everything—the man belonging to no sect but rather to India as a whole.” The newspapers swooned over his “fascinating face, his noble stature and gorgeous apparel,” and “the raven black of his hair, his olive complexion, his dark eyes, his red lips.” The New York Herald called him “undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament” and  the Boston Evening Post said he was “the great favorite” who “received acclamations every time he crossed the platform.” During the two week duration of the Parliament, he spoke 10 or 11 times and “the only way of keeping the public at the meetings … was to announce that Vivekananda would speak at the end.”

The simple power of his message sent a charge into the event, burning through all the scripted rhetoric, “his thesis of a universal Religion without limit of time or space uniting the whole Credo of the human spirit … into a magnificent synthesis, which … helped all hopes to grow and flourish according to their own proper nature.”

No internet was needed to spread the word. He was famous, if not overnight, within a matter of weeks. “Having nearly succumbed to poverty,” Rolland writes, “he was now in danger of being overwhelmed by riches. American snobbery threw itself upon him, and, in its first flush, threatened to smother him with its luxury and vanities.”

Again, it’s almost too easy to find a parallel to the experience of the Beatles when they toured America (and the world), where only the rich and famous could get near them. In order to free himself from his privvileged protectors, Vivekananda went on a speaking tour of the East and Middle West, but the more he saw of the country, and the disparity between rich and poor, the more outspoken he became about “the brutality, the inhumanity, the littleness of spirit, the narrow fanaticism, the monumental ignorance, the crushing incomprehension” of a people who thought themselves “the paragon nation of the human race.” In Boston he inveighed against a civilization of monied “foxes and wolves” whereupon hundreds of people “noisily left the hall, and the Press was furious.”

Even as Vivekananda was attacking the country at large, false Christianity and religious hypocrisy among his favorite targets, he  found pleasure and amusement in the company of American followers, many of the most devoted of whom were weathly, well-born women of a certain age. Since the inadvertenty absurd juxtaposition of such a personage with ordinary people is all but made for mockery, it’s important to keep in mind that in addition to George Harrison, Vivekananda’s admirers included Tolstoy, William James, Sarah Bernhardt, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, Nicolas Tesla, Gandhi, Jung, Santayana, Stravinsky, and, not least, J.D. Salinger, whose long relationship with the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York extended from the early 1950s until his death in January 2010.

An up close and gushingly personal view of Vivekananda can be found on www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info, provided by a Detroit woman who spent time with him in 1894 at the compound on Thousand Island Park that Salinger would visit some six decades later. Among the profusion of adoring quotes: “We take long walks and the Swami literally, and so simply, finds ‘books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good (God) in every thing.  And this same Swami is so merry and fun-loving. We just go mad at times.”

When the woman from Detroit asked Vivekananda how some of the “beautiful society queens of the West would appear to him — especially those versed in the art of allurement,” he looked at her “calmly with his big, serious eyes and gravely replied, ‘If the most beautiful woman in the world were to look at me in an immodest or unwomanly way she would immediately turn into a hideous, green frog, and one does not, of course, admire frogs!’ “

“Meek, Mysterious India!”

That word meek is still crawling around like an ant in my brain. It’s hard to imagine a more grossly misguided association than “meek” and “India.” One of the most off-putting things about the spiritual stereotype implicit in the Maharishi is the travesty of humility skewered in John Lennon’s song “Sexy Sadie” (“We gave her everything we owned just to sit at her table”), which he told Playboy he wrote “when we had our bags packed and were leaving.”

My negative reaction to “meek” is due to the intensity of my own experience during the six months I spent in India, undoubtedly the most significant, exciting six months of my life. What happened to me there on more than one occasion can be compared to a dumbed down version of the early moment with Ramakrishna described by Vivekananda. On one of his first visits, “Ramakrishna had placed his right foot on my body. The contact was terrible. With my eyes open I saw the walls and everything in the room whirling and vanishing into nothingness….The whole universe and my own individuality were at the same time lost in a nameless void.” When that happened to Narendra he wasn’t aware of anything cosmic or spiritual. He was terrified and repelled, thinking himself “face to face with death,” crying out like a frightened child, “What are you doing? I have parents at home.” Which comes close to describing what went through my mind whenever India lowered the boom. It would be nice to think that the heavy things that happened to me there were spiritually valid, but the charge was almost purely sensory: like being turned upside down by a roller coaster. Sharing sunrise on the Ganges at the Kumbha Mehla in Allahabad with seven million Hindus is a magnificent memory, but in the actual roar of the moment I was stunned, embattled, and disoriented. It was the ultimate manifestation of being “out of my depth.”

September 11, 1893/2001

The conclusion of Vivekananda’s opening address at the Parliament of Religions is worth repeating, if only in view of the date:

“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.”

 

—Stuart Mitchner

 

Ann Louise Bardach is working on a biography of Vivekananda. Philip Goldberg’s book, which was helpful as a back-up to Rolland’s Prophets of the New India, is available at the Princeton Public Library and should not be dismissed out of hand because of his unfortunate use of the word “meek.”

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