The UU history book I turn to most often does not tell the story of Vivekananda, nor speculate about how the contact between Hinduism and Unitarianism may have changed our faith forever. We know that the transcendentalists were aware of the philosophical teachings of India. Emerson had been was introduced to Hindu literature by his aunt, Mary Moody Emerson. As early as the 1820s Emerson began to write of India in his journals and in the 1840s he began to publish excerpts from "Ethical Scriptures" in the transcendentalist journal The Dial. It is clear from his writings that Thoreau had the Bhagavad Gita (one Hindu Scriptures) with him during his time at Walden. "In the morning," he wrote, "I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta . . . in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial."
Emerson was an growing old when Narendra Nath Datta was born in Calcutta on January 12 , 1863. (This past week the 150th anniversary of his birth was celebrated by the Unitarian church of Oakland in conjunction with the Swami Vivekananda Celebratory Organization with great ceremony.) Narendra’s father was a lawyer, and his mother was described as “a devout woman.” He was a voracious reader, and studied Western Philosophy and History in college. It was not until after college that he first sought out the guru Ramakrishna. At first Narendra argued with the guru, and struggled with his teachings. After Narendra’s father died leaving the family penniless, Narendra had a crisis of faith, and ultimately accepted Ramakrishna as his teacher, renouncing everything else. Sadly less than a year later, Ramakrishna developed throat cancer and Narendra and other disciples cared for him until his death, continuing to study with him all the while. It was during Ramakrishna’s last year that they took on the ocher robes and formed the first monastic order of Ramakrishna.
After his death in 1886, Ramakrishna’s admirers stopped sending donations to fund the monastery he and his disciples had shared, and it had to be closed. Some followers went back to family life, but Narendra and other disciples chose a new house, small and rundown, and there formed a monastery based on Ramakrishna’s teachings (the Ramakrishna Math) funded by “holy begging.” The word we use for this in English is “Mendicant,” a person who has taken a vow of poverty for religious reasons, and so must beg for food from door to door.[i]
In 1887, when he would have been only 24, Narendra and eight other disciples took formal monastic vows, and Narendra took the new name Swami Bibidishananda. Vivekananda himself described the early days of the monastery: “We underwent a lot of religious practice at the Baranagar Math. We used to get up at 3:00 am and become absorbed in japa and meditation. What a strong spirit of detachment we had in those days! We had no thought even as to whether the world existed or not.” [ii]
In 1888 he began 5 years as wandering monk, His sole possessions were a water pot, staff, and his two favorite books—Bhagavad Gita and The Imitation of Christ. He crossed India walking or taking the train when a ticket was donated by a benefactor, visiting centers of learning and meeting people from all walks of life, often staying with them in their homes.
During his time as a wandering monk, Vivekananda had the "Vision of one India", He wrote, “At Cape Camorin sitting in Mother Kumari's temple, sitting on the last bit of Indian rock—I hit upon a plan: We are so many sanyasis wandering about, and teaching the people metaphysics—it is all madness. Did not our Gurudeva use to say, 'An empty stomach is no good for religion?' We as a nation have lost our individuality and that is the cause of all mischief in India. We have to raise the masses."[iii] Before this vision, many folks had encouraged him to represent India at the World parliament of religions, but it was this desire to speak to the rich western nations about the plight of the poor of his country that finally convinced him to go. Said Vivekananda: “it is for this reason — to find means for the salvation of the poor of India — that I am going to America.” [iv] The Raja of Khetri, provided him with an orange silk robe, an ocher turban, some funds for his travels, and a first-class ticket on a ship that would take him to North America. The Raja also gave him the name “Vivekananda”.[v] Which is a combination of the words for “wisdom” and for “joy” and it was by this name that he would be known around the world.
The Boat traveled first to Japan, then to Vancouver, before arriving in Chicago in July. Soon after his arrival in Chicago, he went to the information bureau of the Exposition to ask about the upcoming Parliament of Religions. There he learned both that the Parliament had been put off until the first week of September , and that no one without” credentials from a bona fide organization” would be accepted as a delegate. Not only that, he was also told also that it was then too late for him to be registered as a delegate. Assuming that the presence of the holy man himself would be all that was needed to participate in the Parliament, none of his Indian benefactors and disciples, not even the Raja, had contacted the organizers of the Parliament of Religions to learn their protocols. His Irish disciple, Sister Nivedita, later remembered,
''The Swami himself was as simple in the ways of the world as his disciples, and when he was once sure that he was divinely called to make this attempt, he could see no difficulties in the way. Nothing could have been more typical of the lack of organizedness of Hinduism itself than this going forth of its representative unannounced, and without formal credentials, to enter the strongly guarded door of the world's wealth and power.”[vi]
In the meantime, the money from India was running out --things were much more expensive in America. He did not have enough to maintain him in Chicago until September. A friend suggested he travel to Boston where living was cheaper, and on the train Vancouver to Chicago he met Kate Sanborn, who invited him to her house in the countryside outside Boston where he joined her a couple of weeks later.[vii]
It was there at her estate, that Swami Vivekananda was introduced to a number of Bostonians, including her cousin, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn. Sanborn was a Transcendentalist, and friend of both Thoreau and Emerson. He also met such Unitarian luminaries as Jane Addams , Julia Ward Howe and the Reverend Jenkin Lloyd Jones. Many sources claim that his first real public talk in America was at the Annisquam Universalist Church, in Gloucester August 25th, 1893. [viii] Days later he gave his second talk at the East Church, 2nd Congregational, a Unitarian church in Salem. During his two visits to the West Vivekananda spoke at Unitarian and Universalist congregations some twenty-seven times. How could our movement have been unchanged by his visit among us?
One of the most important connections Vivekananda made during this time was Harvard Classics Professor J.H. Wright. It was at Professor Wright's invitation, that Vivekananda delivered his first public lecture at the Unitarian Church. When Vivekananda mentioned to Prof. Wright that he had no credentials, the professor replied, 'To ask you, Swami, for your credentials is like asking the sun about its right to shine.' Wright wrote a number of letters concerning Vivekananda to people connected with the Parliament, including to a friend who was serving the chairman of the committee on selection of delegates, and said, 'Here is a man more learned than all our learned professors put together.' It was Professor Wright bought the Swami a railroad ticket for Chicago. Regarding Professor Wright, Vivekananda himself wrote "He urged upon me the necessity of going to the Parliament of Religions, which he thought would give an introduction to the nation."
Along with a list of many speaking appearances Vivekananda made during this time, in the timeline of his visit to America we also find the entry: “Chased by mob, escaped in dark passage.” Vivekananda was denounced as well as praised during his time in America. When he arrived back in Chicago before the Parliament, he did not know how to get from the train station to the Exposition center. When he went, as he had in India, go door to door asking for help, he would be rudely shooed away. Finally he had the good fortune of knocking on the door of a family who knew of the Parliament, and helped him get to the Art Institute of Chicago where he needed to be.
The World Parliament of Religions began on September 11, 1893, and lasted until to September 27. It was attended by over 7000 people from 80 countries and was the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Today it is recognized as the occasion of the birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide. The parliament is the place where Shaku Soen spoke, the first Zen master to travel to the United States. Many conservative religious opposed the event; for example the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote a letter of disapproval based on “the fact that the Christian religion is the one religion. I do not understand how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other intended members and the parity of their position and claims” (in Barrows 1893, 20-2).[ix]
At the Parliament, Vivekananda was received with thundering ovations. IN this and his other talks in America he made three points that were appealing to Unitarians and Universalists which I want to share with you today. First, he called for a universal religion which, as he said “would have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, and would recognize a divinity in every man or woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force would be centered in aiding humanity to realize its Divine nature."
Vivekananda also spoke to the one-ness of God. There was and still is a common misconception that Hinduism is polytheistic, and that its followers worship idols.Vivekananda told the audience at the World Parliament gathering:
“At the very outset, I may tell you that there is no polytheism in India. In every temple, if one stands by and listens, one will find the worshipers applying all the attributes of God, including omnipresence, to the images. It is not polytheism”
So Vivekananda is saying that the worship of these different attributes of God is not a worship of many gods. Instead, it is a path that some follow in seeking God. In fact, the belief in unity extends beyond one unified God, to a fundamental unity (or non-duality) of all that is.
He goes on to say:“This is the common religion of all the sects of India; but, then, perfection is absolute, and the absolute cannot be two or three. It cannot have any qualities. It cannot be an individual. And so when a soul becomes perfect and absolute, it must become one with Brahman…the ultimate of happiness being reached when it would become a universal consciousness.” [x]
“Science has proved to me that physical individuality is a delusion, that really my body is one little continuously changing body in an unbroken ocean of matter; and Advaita, or nonduality, is the necessary conclusion with my other counterpart, soul.Science is nothing but the finding of unity. As soon as science will reach perfect unity, it will stop from further progress because it will have reached the goal. Thus Chemistry will not progress farther when it will discover one element out of which all others can be made. Physics will stop when it will be able to fulfill its services in discovering one energy of which all the others are but manifestations. The science of religion became perfect when it discovered the Being who is the one life in a universe of death, the one who is the constant basis of an ever-changing world, the one who is the only Soul of which all souls are but delusive manifestations. Thus is it, through multiplicity and duality that the ultimate unity is reached. Religion can go no farther. This is the goal of all science.”
The other idea that spoke so readily to religious liberals, was the idea that there are many valid religious paths. He said:
“To the Hindus, then, the whole world of religions is only a traveling, a coming up, of different men and women, through various conditions and circumstances, to the same goal. Every religion is only evolving a God out of the material person, and the same God is the inspirer of all of them. Why, then, are there so many contradictions? They are only apparent, say the Hindus. The contradictions come from the same truth adapting itself to the varying circumstances of different natures.
It is the same light coming through glasses of different colors. And these little variations are necessary for purposes of adaptation. But in the heart of everything the same truth reigns.”[xi]
After the parliament, Vivekananda continued to speak across America On Feb. 14, 1894, Vivekananda spoke to a packed crowd at the Unitarian Church in Detroit. “His eloquent and graceful manner pleased his listeners … showing approval by outbursts of applause,” the Free Press wrote. “The Eastern brother is most impressive.” The Detroit Journal wrote that if Vivekananda “could be induced to remain for a week longer, the largest hall in Detroit would not hold the crowds which would be anxious to hear him. … Every seat in the Unitarian church was occupied, and many were compelled to stand.”
First Unitarian Church of Oakland welcomed Swami Vivekananda to their pulpit in 1900. According to Swami Nikhilananda, “Swami Vivekananda journeyed to Oakland as the guest of Dr. Benjamin Fay Mills, the minister of the First Unitarian Church, and there gave eight lectures to crowded audiences which often numbered as high as two thousand.” Since the Oakland church was near the seminary I attended, I have often worshiped there, and can’t imagine how more than a few hundred could fit there even if it was seated well past its capacity. Reports estimate that at one five hundred people were turned away.
According to the Swami Vivekananda Celebratory Organization, one who attended these sermons in Oakland reported: “He stood on the platform of the Unitarian Church pouring forth glorious truths in a voice unlike any voice one had ever heard before...Those who came to the first lecture came to the second and to the third, bringing others with them. "Come," they said, "hear this wonderful man. He is like no one we have ever heard" and they came until there was no place to hold them.”
Vivekananda died just a few years later in 1902 at the age of 39, but before that time he founded Vedanta society in US, which generated centers around the United States. [A footnote here- Vednanta refers to teachings of the Vedas, the holy writings of this religions tradition. In actuality “Hindusim” is a word coined by the Persians to refer to residents of India because it was on the other side of the Sindhu River (also called the Indus)] He revitalized Hinduism in India, and many say his lectures in the United states prepared the way for yoga and Transcendental Meditation which were later widely received in the West. Given the number of influential Unitarian and Universalist thinkers Vivekananda met during his time here, the number of our churches that he visited? How could our movement have been unchanged by his visit among us?
[ii] Chetananda, Swami (1997), God lived with them: life stories of sixteen monastic disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, St. Louis, Missouri: Vedanta Society of St. Louis.
[vii] An extensive timeline of his visit to the US can be found at vedanta.org/vs/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/chronology2.pdf
[x] . (paper on Hinduism) http://www.vivekananda.org/readings.asp
[xi] . (paper on Hinduism) http://www.vivekananda.org/readings.asp