The Hinduism of the other Narendra

It was not the traditional 'ladies and gentlemen' that began his speech. Instead, he addressed the audience as "brothers and sisters of America"

Modern society has witnessed Hinduism branching out to different sub-tributaries, like the outlets of a corporate chain with everyone giving their own twist and shape. (Wikimedia Commons)

"I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world" 

Jan. 12, 2020, marked the 156th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda (Narendranath Datta before he became a monk), one of the most prominent reformers of 19th century India. It was an age that saw waves of enlightenment engulfing traditional thought and belief, when the renaissance pervaded society armed with scientific advancements and rational outlook. Nowadays, Swami Vivekananda is mostly known as the one who led the resurgence of Hinduism in India and as the founder of the Ramakrishna Mission and the Ramakrishna Math. 

India, right now, is embroiled in a debate of "what is Hinduism?". The present national scenario has led many to bring forth the forgotten tenets of Hinduism and present before the world its real ethos. Amid this raging debate, one name that has been referred to time and again is that of Swami Vivekananda. On Sept. 11, 1893, 127 years ago, the saffron-clad monk addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, delivering a riveting speech on Hinduism. It was a speech that enchanted the world and the glory of Hinduism was spread far and wide. 

It was not the traditional 'ladies and gentlemen' that began his speech. Instead, he addressed the audience as "brothers and sisters of America". It was enough to set the ball rolling, and then he went on to unravel the values of Hinduism. 

"I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny."

At a time when the question of nationality and refugee has shrouded the nation and divided the society into warring parties, it's crucial to remember that Vivekananda's Hinduism embraces every other religion in times of distress and accepts other faiths and beliefs as true. Above all, when India grappled with rising intolerance, Swami Vivekananda showcased the Hindu religion as a faith imbued with the virtue of tolerance. He emphasised his argument by quoting from the Bhagavad Gita, "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me." 

He derided fanatics, terming them as the destroyer of civilisation, ones who have drenched the earth with blood and filled the air with violence: "Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth."

In his speech at the final session on Sept. 27, 1893, he further highlighted the need for every religion to have an individual existence, and the importance of every faith to coexist in harmony and peace. He said, "But if anyone here hopes that this (religious) unity will come by the triumph of any one of the religions and the destruction of the others, to him I say, "Brother, yours is an impossible hope." Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid." He concluded his speech by expressing a hope that one day, every religion would propagate one fundamental sense of unity, where it will be etched: "Help and not fight, assimilation and not destruction, harmony and peace and not dissension." 

Modern society has witnessed Hinduism branching out to different sub-tributaries, like the outlets of a corporate chain with everyone giving their own twist and shape. The rise of 'Hindutva', supposedly an offspring of Hinduism, had led to unrest and controversies. Maybe it's time that people revisit the roots of Hinduism. As Swami Vivekananda showed all those years ago, only the true understanding of a particular religion will enable an individual to grasp its essence and help the faith grow in its truest form. 

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