Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Great Hindu Monk's 150th Birth Anniversary.

Today is the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda who is often called the greatest missionary of Hinduism.

I remember exactly this day, 25 years ago, I stood at Belur Muth, Kolkata, India, in front of 7000 people - with butterflies in my stomach - speaking about the youth perspective on National Integration from his teachings.

I was 20. And I was proud. So, were my parents, and my college's principal, because I was selected from among all the colleges of Hyderabad to represent Ramakrishna Muth, Hyderabad at the Youth Session of the 125th Birth Anniversary Celebrations of this great Hindu teacher.

What I'd learnt about Swami Vivekananda during my preparation for the talk, and especially during my six-day stay at Belur Muth, Calcutta (as Kolkata was called then) was truly eye-opening. So, in a way, this post is a dedication to the monks I'd met during that time.

As a Christian who grew up questioning my religious belief, and as a young boy who was seeking knowledge on how religion matters, I was truly blessed by my short association with Ramakrishna Muth, Hyderabad.

I really do not know how much the current leadership of this mission is doing in promoting discourses and debates on religious values and their application to everyday living, but it had had a profound impact on my personal value system, during my formative years.

Today, even though I am now a Christian, by personal choice and conviction, my respect for this influential and zealous Hindu teacher has only increased with age, and I am sure, it will never diminish.

I just wish, like millions of others, that India produced more such philosophers and teachers.

I had had the privilege, and a couple of rare opportunities, to actually talk with Swami Ranganathaanandha and Swami Prabhupadananda, who were then at the Hyderabad Center of the Ramakrishna Mission - which was founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1897 - which bases its work on the principles of karma yoga, and subscribes to the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta.

The Mission's global headquarters was however at Belur Math in Howrah near Kolkata, India.

And, thanks to my selection for this event, it had suddenly become a special place for me, to spend at least six days where I got to understand the Hindu belief system better.

I must have questioned the monks there, and talked to them, with an immature mind. But I will not forget one particular monk, Swami Krishnamachari, who patiently explained 'Vedic Hinduism' to me.

He even surprised me with his interpretation of what Jesus could have meant when he used the words 'living waters'; while talking to the Samaritan woman at the well. In fact, this swami surprised me more by actually saying, "As you know, in Chapter 4 of the Gospel according to John.... " and by quoting chapters and verses, made me realize he was well-versed with the Bible.

The vivid scene of my sitting with him on the grass of Belur Math, on the banks of River Hoogly, as we talked, and as we watched the stars slowly appear out of the twilight - and as we watched a fire, from a cremation taking place, a little distance away - will not easily go away from my memory.

Even though I was largely ignorant, and several years younger than him, Swami Krishnamachari answered my questions with knowledge, humility and patience (values that the late Swami Vivekananda, the founder of his order, would have been proud of).

I came to understand that these monks of the Ramakrishna Mission take up celibacy - only to devote more time to studying Hindu scriptures and comparative religion. And they go through years of education, like how any Christian pastor or priest would do, at a seminary, before he is formally ordained.

Like the other seven young speakers selected from across the country, I too received 'The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda', in eight huge volumes, which I will always cherish.

The way in which Swami Vivekananda talks about Jesus' teachings, in the 4th Volume, is so good that I'd brought it with me to Bahrain, and I keep referring.

Recently, less than six months ago, when on a sight-seeing trip with family and friends, I had had the pleasure of renewed memories when I stood at the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, in Kanyakumari.

I soon found myself animatedly explaining to my two daughters, the greatness of this man who had stunned the world with his now-famous Chicago Address.

Here is his very interesting perspective of Christ, when he addressed a gathering in Los Angeles in 1900 :

"Many times you forget, also, that the Nazarene himself was an Oriental of Orientals. With all your attempts to paint him with blue eyes and yellow hair, the Nazarene was still an Oriental. All the similes, the imageries, in which the Bible is written--the scenes, the locations, the attitudes, the groups, the poetry, and symbol,--speak to you of the Orient: of the bright sky, of the heat, of the sun, of the desert, of the thirsty men and animals; of men and women coming with pitchers on their heads to fill them at the wells; of the flocks, of the ploughmen, of the cultivation that is going on around; of the water-mill and wheel, of the mill-pond, of the millstones. All these are to be seen today in Asia." ----You can see the full text here

Sadly, Swami Vivekananda died when he was just 39.

But by then, when aeroplane travel was unheard of, he had already travelled the world and influenced the generation of that time. And he still influences the new generation.

On the 150th anniversary of his birth, I salute the great teacher.

And the legacy he's left for all of us.


1 comment:

Raj Polapragada said...

Joel garu, as Keats said, " education is not for sweetening our mouth ,but make others inspired about life". tell me now, how many of us are doing this. Vivekananda was selected to give speech in Chicago as you were selected to speak at Belur. I was also in belur math as well as in Chicago. i was equally impressed with American hero Lincoln and i felt thrilled when i visited Lincoln memorial. these are great people who influenced and changed thinking of others to noble ways. when I saw you , I knew you had spark. but I know who lit it . nowadays, youngsters do not have proper Idols and no wonder they lack direction. pl. continue to inspire Bharain youth as your idol inspired Indian youth.