It started early – at an age when one was yet to learn reading. In those halcyon days children were not sent to school till they were old enough to join Grade I. In that golden period of life for us it was mostly playing, and maybe a bit of learning and memorising Bengali rhymes. There was no dearth of parental love, but we were yet to be assigned to the rather daunting tutelage of ‘Misses’ or ‘Sirs’ .
My uncle, who had retired from active service due to a chronic disease but was mentally alert and physically fine, was my mentor. I would have a post-lunch session with him when he would read out passages from a worn-out volume of the Mahabharata or Ramayana and I would listen with rapt attention. He then recounted the stories in his own inimitable style in a language a preschool kid easily understood. No wonder that the epics caught my imagination from an early age.
Uncle was an avid reader and was particularly fond of studying the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna and the works of Swami Vivekananda. Thus, his basket of tales had a fair collection of interesting episodes from the Gospel as well as the life of Swamiji. He told us how, as young men he and his friends had seen Master Moshai – the famous Mahendra Gupta or M, the creator of the Gospel – coming in and out of the Morton School (later, the Hindu Academy) many times, but somehow could not muster enough courage to approach him.
We learnt at an early age how only Sri Ramakrishna could give a satisfactory reply to Narendranath’s spiritual questions, and how the latter became the foremost disciple of the seer of Dakshineshwar. The story of Swami Vivekananda’s wanderings through the length and breadth of India, his encounters with many great personalities, his meeting the Maharaja of Khetri, his meditation on the rock off the coast at Kanyakumari, and finally his participation in the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago made an indelible impression in our minds. Quite imperceptibly, ideas like “all religions are true” and “As many beliefs, so many ways” became a matter of faith for me and others who listened to these stories.
I think that we were in Grade V in school when in our General Studies class one of the teachers introduced us to some of the most inspiring speeches and writings of Vivekananda. We were made to memorize those soul-stirring messages and also to recite them on appropriate occasions.
One of these was the oft-quoted passage from Swamiji’s famous essay in Bengali titled “Bartaman Bharat” (Modern India). It goes:
“…..forget not that the lower classes, the ignorant, the poor, the illiterate, the cobbler, the sweeper, are thy flesh and blood, thy brothers**** proudly proclaim, ‘I am an Indian, every Indian is my brother.’ Say, ‘the ignorant Indian, the poor and destitute Indian, the Brahmin Indian, the Pariah Indian, is my brother.’ …….”( The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 4)
Reading these and similar other inspired writings and speeches of the patriot saint became almost an addiction. Like other impacts it faded a bit as years passed by. Other seemingly more pervasive influences and thoughts overshadowed it for a while, but could not totally obliterate the impression.
Even today as I read these words, an indescribable sense of love for India – with all her shortcomings and multitude of her problems – fills the heart. And while delivering the message Vivekananda does not even once use the word “Hindu”. He exhorts us to love all Indians, irrespective of their other attributes. It is this totally non-sectarian outlook, this love for all his countrymen regardless of their social status, this great humanism that endeared Swami Vivekananda to me.
Later, when I came across the following passage in Swamiji’s works, I got hooked to him forever.
“For the next fifty years this alone shall be our keynote – this, our great Mother India. Let all other vain gods disappear for the time from our minds. This is the only god that is awake, our own race – ‘everywhere his hands, everywhere his feet, everywhere his ears, he covers everything’. All other gods are sleeping. What vain gods shall we go after and yet cannot worship the god that we see all round us, the Virat?” ….
In continuum he says,
“Everyone going to be a Yogi, everyone going to mediate! It cannot be. The whole day mixing with the world with Karma Kanda, and in the evening sitting down and blowing through your nose! Is it so easy? …It is all nonsense. What is needed is…purification of the heart. And how does that come? The first of all worship is the worship of … those all around us.. These are all our gods … and the first gods we have to worship are our countrymen.”…..(The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 3)
“ Give up all those old discussions, old fights about things which are meaningless, which are nonsensical in their very nature. Think of the last six hundred or seven hundred years of degradation when grown-up men by hundreds have been discussing for years whether we should drink a glass of water with the right hand or the left, whether the hand should be washed three times or four times, whether we should gargle five or six times. What can you expect from men who pass their lives in discussing such momentous questions as these and writing most learned philosophies on them! ….. We are just “Don’t-touchists”. Our religion is in the kitchen. Our God is the cooking-pot, and our religion is, “Don’t touch me, I am holy” (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 3)
Swami Vivekananda was indeed the first Hindu monk to successfully project Hinduism to the West and to create a great positive impact. He, beyond doubt, was one of the greatest philosophers. His erudition leaves us awe-struck not only by its vastness and depth, but by the fact that he lived for only 39 years . All these are different facets of the great personality that he was. But for me, I adore Vivekananda, the patriot par excellence, for his unflinching love for India. He inspires me by his great empathy for the oppressed, downtrodden millions and above all I adore him for his all-encompassing humanism, when he says
“He is in front of you in various forms,
And you are still looking for God elsewhere?
One who loves living beings
Is serving God”
I bow to Swami Vivekananda.