On Monday, September 11, 1893 the Parliament of Religions opened its deliberations with due solemnity. This great meeting was an adjunct of the World’s Columbian Exposition, which had been organized to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. One of the main goals of the Exposition was to disseminate knowledge of the progress and enlightenment brought about in the world by Western savants and especially through physical science and technology; but as religion forms a vital factor in human culture, it had been decided to organize a Parliament of Religions in conjunction with the Exposition.
Dr. Barrows, in his History of the Parliament of Religions, writes:
Since faith in a Divine Power to whom men believe they owe service and worship, has been like the sun, a life-giving and fructifying potency in man’s intellectual and moral development; since Religion lies at the back of Hindu literature with its marvellous and mystic developments; of the European Art, whether in the form of Grecian statues or Gothic cathedrals; and of American liberty and the recent uprisings of men on behalf of a juster social condition; and since it is as clear as the light, that the Religion of Christ has led to many of the chief and noblest developments of our modern civilization, it did not appear that Religion any more than Education, Art, or Electricity, should be excluded from the Columbian Exposition.
It is not altogether improbable that some of the more enthusiastic Christian theologians, among the promoters of the Parliament, thought that the Parliament would give them an opportunity to prove the superiority of Christianity, professed by the vast majority of the people of the progressive West, over the other faiths of the world. Much later Swami Vivekananda said, in one of his jocular moods, that the Divine Mother Herself willed the Parliament in order to give him an opportunity to present the Eternal Religion of the Hindus before the world at large, and that the stage was set for him to play his important role, everything else being incidental. The appropriateness of this remark can be appreciated now, six decades after the great event, from the fact that whereas all else that was said and discussed at the Parliament has been forgotten, what Vivekananda preached is still cherished in America, and the movement inaugurated by him has endeared itself to American hearts.
‘One of the chief advantages,’ to quote the words of the Hon. Mr. Merwin-Marie Snell, president of the Scientific Section of the Parliament, ‘has been in the great lessons which it has taught the Christian world, especially the people of the United States, namely, that there are other religions more venerable than Christianity, which surpass it in philosophical depths, in spiritual intensity, in independent vigour of thought, and in breadth and sincerity of human sympathy, while not yielding to it a single hair’s breadth in ethical beauty and efficiency.’
At 10 a.m. the Parliament opened. In it every form of organized religious belief, as professed among twelve hundred millions of people, was represented. Among the non-Christian groups could be counted Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Mohammedanism, and Mazdaism.
The spacious hall and the huge gallery of the art Palace were packed with seven thousand people — men and women representing the culture of the United States. The official delegates marched in a grand procession to the platform, and in the centre, in his scarlet robe, sat Cardinal Gibbons, the highest prelate of the Roman Catholic Church in the Western hemisphere. He occupied a chair of state and opened the meeting with a prayer. On his left and right were grouped the Oriental delegates: Pratap Chandra Mazoomdar of the Calcutta Brahmo Samaj, and Nagarkar of Bombay; Dharmapala, representing the Ceylon Buddhists; Gandhi, representing the Jains; Chakravarti and Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society. With them sat Swami Vivekananda, who represented no particular sect, but the Universal Religion of the Vedas, and who spoke, as will presently be seen, for the religious aspiration of all humanity. His gorgeous robe, large yellow turban, bronze complexion, and fine features stood out prominently on the platform and drew everybody’s notice. In numerical order the Swami’s position was number thirty-one.
The delegates arose, one by one, and read prepared speeches, but the Hindu sannyasin was totally unprepared. He had never before addressed such an assembly. When he was asked to give his message he was seized with stage-fright, and requested the chairman to call on him a little later. Several times he postponed the summons. As he admitted later: ‘Of course my heart was fluttering and my tongue nearly dried up. I was so nervous that I could not venture to speak in the morning session.’
At last he came to the rostrum and Dr. Barrows introduced him. Bowing to Sarasvati, the Goddess of Wisdom, he addressed the audience as ‘Sisters and Brothers of America.’ Instantly, thousands arose in their seats and gave him loud applause. They were deeply moved to see, at last, a man who discarded formal words and spoke to them with the natural and candid warmth of a brother.
It took a full two minutes before the tumult subsided, and the Swami began his speech by thanking the youngest of the nations in the name of the most ancient monastic order in the world, the Vedic order of sannyasins. The keynote of his address was universal toleration and acceptance. He told the audience how India, even in olden times, had given shelter to the religious refugees of other lands — for instance, the Israelites and the Zoroastrians — and he quoted from the scriptures the following two passages revealing the Hindu spirit of toleration:
‘As different streams, having their sources in different places, all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.’
‘Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him. All men are struggling through many paths which in the end lead to Me.’
In conclusion he pleaded for the quick termination of sectarianism, bigotry, and fanaticism.
The response was deafening applause. It appeared that the whole audience had been patiently awaiting this message of religious harmony. A Jewish intellectual remarked to the present writer, years later, that after hearing Vivekananda he realized for the first time that his own religion, Judaism, was true, and that the Swami had addressed his words on behalf of not only his religion, but all religions of the world. Whereas every one of the other delegates had spoken for his own ideal or his own sect, the Swami had spoken about God, who, as the ultimate goal of all faiths, is their inmost essence. And he had learnt that truth at the feet of Sri Ramakrishna, who had taught incessantly, from his direct experience, that all religions are but so many paths to reach the same goal. The Swami gave utterance to the yearning of the modern world to break down the barriers of caste, colour, and creed and to fuse all people into one humanity.
Not a word of condemnation for any faith, however crude or irrational, fell from his lips. He did not believe that this religion or that religion was true in this or that respect; to him all religions were equally effective paths to lead their respective devotees, with diverse tastes and temperaments, to the same goal of perfection. Years before, young Narendra had condemned before his Master, in his neophyte zeal, a questionable sect that indulged in immoral practices in the name of religion, and Ramakrishna had mildly rebuked him, saying: ‘Why should you criticize those people? Their way, too, ultimately leads to God. There are many doors to enter a mansion. The scavenger comes in by the back door. You need not use it.’
How prophetic were the master’s words that his Naren would one day shake the world! Mrs. S.K. Blodgett, who later became the Swami’s hostess in Los Angeles, said about her impressions of the Parliament: ‘I was at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. When that young man got up and said, “Sisters and Brothers of America,” seven thousand people rose to their feet as a tribute to something they knew not what. When it was over I saw scores of women walking over the benches to get near him, and I said to my self, “Well, my lad, if you can resist that onslaught you are indeed a God!”‘
Swami Vivekananda addressed the Parliament about a dozen times. His outstanding address was a paper on Hinduism in which he discussed Hindu metaphysics, psychology, and theology. The divinity of the soul, the oneness of existence, the non-duality of the Godhead, and the harmony of religions were the recurring themes of his message. He taught that the final goal of man is to become divine by realizing the Divine and that human beings are the children of ‘Immortal Bliss’.
In the final session of the Parliament, Swami Vivekananda said in the conclusion of his speech:
‘The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor is a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth. If the Parliament of Religions has shown any thing to the world, it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity, and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance: “Help and not Fight,” “Assimilation and not Destruction,” “Harmony and Peace and not Dissension”.’
The Parliament of Religions offered Swami Vivekananda the long desired opportunity to present before the Western world the eternal and universal truths of his Aryan ancestors. And he rose to the occasion. As he stood on the platform to give his message, he formed, as it were, the confluence of two great streams of thought, the two ideals that had moulded human culture. The vast audience before him represented exclusively the Occidental mind — young, alert, restless, inquisitive, tremendously honest, well disciplined, and at ease with the physical universe, but sceptical about the profundities of the supersensuous world and unwilling to accept spiritual truths without rational proof. And behind him lay the ancient world of India, with its diverse religious and philosophical discoveries, with its saints and prophets who investigated Reality through self-control and contemplation, unruffled by the passing events of the transitory life and absorbed in contemplation of the Eternal Verities. Vivekananda’s education, upbringing, personal experiences, and contact with the God-man of modern India had pre-eminently fitted him to represent both ideals and to remove their apparent conflict.
To Vivekananda the religion of the Hindus, based upon the teachings of the Vedas, appeared adequate to create the necessary synthesis. By the Vedas he did not mean any particular book containing the words of a prophet or deriving sanction from a supernatural authority, but the accumulated treasure of spiritual laws discovered by various Indian seers in different times. Just as the law of gravitation existed before its discovery, and would continue to exist even if all humanity forgot it, so do the laws that govern the spiritual world exist independently of our knowledge of them. The moral, ethical, and spiritual relations between soul and soul, and between individual spirits and the Father of all spirits, were in existence before their discovery, and will remain even if we forget them. Regarding the universal character of the Hindu faith the Swami said: ‘From the high spiritual flights of the Vedanta philosophy, of which the latest discoveries of science seem like echoes, to the low ideas of idolatry with its multifarious mythology, the agnosticism of the Buddhists, and the atheism of the Jains, each and all have a place in Hindu religion.’
The young, unknown monk of India was transformed overnight into an outstanding figure of the religious world. From obscurity he leapt to fame. His life-size portraits were posted in the streets of Chicago, with words ‘The Monk Vivekananda’ written beneath them and many passers-by would stop to do reverence with bowed heads.
Dr. J.H. Barrows, Chairman of the General Committee of the Parliament of Religions, said: ‘Swami Vivekananda exercised a wonderful influence over his auditors,’ and Mr. Merwin-Marie Snell stated, more enthusiastically: ‘By far the most important and typical representative of Hinduism was Swami Vivekananda, who, in fact, was beyond question the most popular and influential man in the Parliament….He was received with greater enthusiasm than any other speaker, Christian or pagan. The people thronged about him wherever he went and hung with eagerness on his every word. The most rigid of orthodox Christians say of him, “He is indeed a prince among men!”‘
Newspapers published his speeches and they were read with warm interest all over the country. The New York Herald said: ‘He is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.’ The Boston Evening Post said: ‘He is a great favourite at the Parliament from the grandeur of his sentiments and his appearance as well. If he merely crosses the platform he is applauded; and this marked approval of thousands he accepts in a childlike spirit of gratification without a trace of conceit….At the Parliament of Religions they used to keep Vivekananda until the end of the programme to make people stay till the end of the session….The four thousand fanning people in the Hall of Columbus would sit smiling and expectant, waiting for an hour or two to listen to Vivekananda for fifteen minutes. The chairman knew the old rule of keeping the best until the last.’
It is one of the outstanding traits of Americans to draw out the latent greatness of other people. America discovered Vivekananda and made a gift of him to India and the world.
The reports of the Parliament of Religions were published in the Indian magazines and newspapers. The Swami’s vindication of the Hindu faith filled with pride the hearts of his countrymen from Colombo to Almora, from Calcutta to Bombay. The brother monks at the Baranagore monastery were not, at first, clear about the identity of Vivekananda. A letter from the Swami, six months after the Parliament, removed all doubts, however, and how proud they felt at the achievement of their beloved Naren!
But how did Vivekananda himself react to this triumph, which had been the fulfilment of his long cherished desire? He knew that his solitary life as a monk in constant communion with God was at an end; he could no longer live in obscurity with his dreams and visions. Instead of dwelling in peace and serenity, he was thrown into the vortex of a public career with its ceaseless turmoil and demands. When he returned to his hotel the night after the first meeting of the Parliament, he wept like a child.
After he had delivered his message in the Parliament, the Swami suffered no longer from material wants. The doors of the wealthy were thrown open. Their lavish hospitality made him sick at heart when he remembered the crushing poverty of his own people. His anguish became so intense one night that he rolled on the floor, groaning: ‘O Mother, what do I care for name and fame when my motherland remains sunk in utmost poverty? To what a sad pass have we poor Indians come when millions of us die for want of a handful of rice, and here they spend millions of rupees upon their personal comfort! Who will raise the masses of India? Who will give them bread? Show me, O Mother, how I can help them.’ While addressing one session of the Parliament, the Swami had said that what India needed was not religion, but bread. Now he began to study American life in its various aspects, especially the secret of the country’s high standard of living and he communicated to his disciples in India his views on the promotion of her material welfare.
Swami Vivekananda was invited by a lecture bureau to tour the United States, and he accepted the offer. He wanted money in order to free himself from obligation to his wealthy friends and also to help his various philanthropic and religious projects in India. Further, he thought that through a lecture bureau he could effectively broadcast his ideas all over the American continent and thus remove from people’s minds erroneous notions regarding Hindu religion and society. Soon he was engaged in a whirlwind tour covering the larger cities of the East and the Middle West. People called him the ‘cyclonic Hindu’. He visited, among other places, Iowa City, Des Moines, Memphis, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Detroit, Buffalo, Hartford, Boston, Cambridge, New York, Baltimore, and Washington. Cherishing a deep affection for the members of the Hale family, he made his headquarters with George W. Hale in Chicago.
But his path was not always strewn with rose petals. Vivekananda was an outspoken man. Whenever he found in American society signs of brutality, inhumanity, pettiness, arrogance, and ignorance concerning cultures other than its own, he mercilessly criticized them. Often small-minded people asked him irritating questions about India, based upon malicious and erroneous reports, and the Swami fell upon them like a thunderbolt. ‘But woe to the man,’ wrote the Iowa State Register, ‘who undertook to combat the monk on his own ground, and that was where they all tried it who tried it at all. His replies came like flashes of lightning and the venturesome questioner was sure to be impaled on the Indian’s shining intellectual lance….Vivekananda and his cause found a place in the hearts of all true Christians.’ Many Christian ministers became his warm friends and invited him to speak in their churches.
Swami Vivekananda was especially bitter about false Christianity and the religious hypocrisy of many Christian leaders. In a lecture given in Detroit he came out in one of his angriest moods, and declared in the course of his speech:
You train and educate and clothe and pay men to do what? — to come over to my country and curse and abuse all my forefathers, my religion, my everything. They walk near a temple and say, ‘You idolaters, you will go to hell.’ But the Hindu is mild; he smiles and passes on, saying, ‘Let the fools talk.’ And then you who train men to abuse and criticize, if I just touch you with the least bit of criticism, but with the kindest purpose, you shrink and cry: ‘Do not touch us! We are Americans; we criticize, curse, and abuse all the heathens of the world, but do not touch us, we are sensitive plants.’ And whenever you missionaries criticize us, let them remember this: If all India stands up and takes all the mud that lies at the bottom of the Indian Ocean and throws it up against the Western countries, it will not be doing an infinitesimal part of what you are doing to us.
Continuing, the Swami said that the military conquests of the Western nations and the activities of the Christian missionaries, strangely enough, often proceeded side by side. Most people were converted for worldly reasons. But the Swami warned:
Such things tumble down; they are built upon sand; they cannot remain long. Everything that has selfishness for its basis, competition for its right hand, and enjoyment as its goal, must die sooner or later.
If you want to live, go back to Christ. You are not Christians. No, as a nation you are not. Go back to Christ. Go back to him who had nowhere to lay his head. Yours is a religion preached in the name of luxury. What an irony of fate! Reverse this if you want to live; reverse this. You cannot serve God and Mammon at the same time. All this prosperity — all this from Christ? Christ would have denied all such heresies. If you can join these two, this wonderful prosperity with the ideal of Christ, it is well; but if you cannot, better go back to him and give up these vain pursuits. Better be ready to live in rags with Christ than to live in palaces without him.
On one occasion the Swami was asked to speak in Boston on Ramakrishna, a subject dear to his heart. When he looked at the audience — the artificial and worldly crowd of people — and contrasted it with his Master’s purity and renunciation, he practically dropped the subject and mercilessly inveighed against the materialistic culture of the West. The audience was resentful and many left the meeting in an angry mood. But Vivekananda, too, had his lesson. On returning home he recalled what he had said, and wept. His Master had never uttered a word of condemnation against anybody, even the most wicked person; yet he, while talking about Ramakrishna, had criticized these good-hearted people who were eager to learn about the Master. He felt that he was too unworthy of Sri Ramakrishna to discuss him or even to write about him.
Swami Vivekananda’s outspoken words aroused the bitter enmity of a large section of the Christian missionaries and their American patrons, and also of Christian fanatics. Filled with rancour and hatred, these began to vilify him both openly and in private. They tried to injure his reputation by writing false stories traducing his character. Some of the Indian delegates to the Parliament, jealous of the Swami’s popularity and fame, joined in the vilification. Missionaries working in India and some of the Hindu organizations started an infamous campaign against the Swami’s work. The Theosophists were particularly vindictive. They declared that the Swami was violating the laws of monastic life in America by eating forbidden food and breaking caste laws.
His friends and disciples in India were frightened and sent him cuttings from Indian papers containing these malicious reports. One article stated that one of the Swami’s American hostesses had had to dismiss a servant girl on account of the Swami’s presence in the house. But the lady published a vehement denial and said that the Swami was an honoured guest in her home and would always be treated with affection and respect. The Swami wrote to his timorous devotees in India concerning a particular American paper that had criticized him, telling them that it was generally known in America as the ‘blue-nosed Presbyterian paper’, that no educated American took it seriously, and that, following the well-known Yankee trick, it had tried to gain notoriety by attracting a man lionized by society. He assured them that the American people as a whole, and many enlightened Christian clergymen, were among his admiring friends, and he asked them not to send him any more of such newspaper trash with articles from his vilifiers. He told them, furthermore, that he had never deviated from the two basic vows of the monastic life, namely, chastity and poverty, and that as regards other things, he was trying to adjust himself to the customs of the people among whom he lived.
To the accusation from some orthodox Hindus that the Swami was eating forbidden food at the table of infidels, he retorted:
Do you mean to say I am born to live and die as one of those caste-ridden, superstitious, merciless, hypocritical, atheistic cowards that you only find among the educated Hindus? I hate cowardice. I will have nothing to do with cowards. I belong to the world as much as to India, no humbug about that. What country has a special claim on me? Am I a nation’s slave? …I see a greater power than man or God or Devil at my back. I require nobody’s help. I have been all my life helping others.
To another Indian devotee he wrote in similar vein:
I am surprised that you take the missionaries’ nonsense so seriously….If the people of India want me to keep strictly to my Hindu diet, please tell them to send me a cook and money enough to keep him….On the other hand, if the missionaries tell you that I have ever broken the two great vows of the sannyasin — chastity and poverty — tell them that they are big liars. As for me, mind you, I stand at nobody’s dictation, and no chauvinism about me….I hate cowardice; I will have nothing to do with cowards or political nonsense. I do not believe in any politics. God and truth are the only politics in the world; everything else is trash.
Swami Vivekananda remained unperturbed by opposition. His lectures, intensely religious and philosophical, were attended everywhere by eminent people. Many came to him for private instruction. His aim was to preach the eternal truths of religion and to help sincere people in moulding their spiritual life. Very soon his dauntless spirit, innate purity, lofty idealism, spiritual personality, and spotless character attracted to him a band of sincere and loyal American disciples, whom he began to train as future Vedanta workers in America.
It must be said to the credit of America that she was not altogether unprepared to receive the message of Vivekananda. Certain spiritual ideas, which were congenial for the reception of the Vedantic ideals presented by the Swami, had already begun to ferment underneath the robust, picturesque, gay, and dynamic surface of American life. Freedom, equality, and justice had always been the cherished treasures of American hearts. To these principles, which the Americans applied in politics and society for the material and ethical welfare of men, Swami Vivekananda gave a spiritual basis and interpretation.
Religion had played an important part from the very beginning of American Colonial history. The pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic in the ‘Mayflower’ and landed on the barren cost of Cape Cod in November 1620, were English people who had first left England and gone to Holland for freedom of worship. Later they were joined by other dissenters who could not submit to the restrictions placed upon their religious beliefs by the English rulers of the time. These were the forbears of the sturdy, religious-minded New Englanders who, two centuries later, became the leaders of the intellectual and spiritual culture of America. Swami Vivekananda found among their descendants many of his loyal and enthusiastic followers.
Both the Holy Bible and the philosophy of Locke influenced the Bill of Rights and the American Constitution. Leaders imbued with the Christian ideal of the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men, penned the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which clearly set forth its political philosophy, namely, the equality of men before God, the state, and society. Thomas Paine, one of the high priests of the American Revolution, was an uncompromising foe of tyranny, and an upholder of human freedom. The same passion for equality, freedom, justice, enduring peace, and righteousness was later to permeate the utterances of the great Lincoln.
The political structure of America shows the sagacity and lofty idealism of her statesmen, who built up the country after the War of Independence. The original thirteen colonies, which had wrested freedom from England, gradually became the United States of America. The architects of the American Government might have created, following the imperialistic pattern of England, an American Empire, with the original thirteen states as a sort of mother country and the rest as her colonies. But instead, the newly acquired territories received complete equality of status. It may also be mentioned that, with the exception of the Mexican War of 1845, America has never started a war.
Within a hundred years of her gaining independence, America showed unprecedented material prosperity. The country’s vast hidden wealth was tapped by European immigrants, who brought with them not only the flavour of an older civilization, but technical skill, indomitable courage, and the spirit of adventure. Scientists and technologists flooded the country with new inventions. Steamboats, a network of railroads, and various mechanical appliances aided in the creation of new wealth. Towns grew into cities. As big business concerns expanded, workmen and mechanics formed protective organizations. Ambition stirred everywhere, and men’s very manners changed with the new haste and energy that swept them on.
Material prosperity was accompanied by a new awakening of men’s minds and consciousness. Jails were converted into penitentiary systems, based upon humanitarian principles, and anti-slavery societies were inaugurated. During the five years between 1850 and 1855 were published some of the greatest books in American literature, hardly surpassed in imaginative vitality. Democracy was in full swing and it was the people’s day everywhere. The crude frontier days were fast disappearing.
The Transcendentalist Movement, of which Emerson was the leader, with Thoreau and Alcott as his associates, brought spiritual India into the swift current of American life. The old and new continents had not been altogether strangers. Columbus had set out to find the short route to India, known far and wide for her fabulous wealth, and had stumbled upon America instead. The chests of tea of the Boston Tea Party, which set off the War of Independence, had come from India. Moreover, the victory of the English over the French in the eighteenth-century colonial wars in India contributed to the success of the American colonists in their struggle for freedom begun in 1775. And finally, Commodore Perry in 1853 made it possible for American merchant ships to trade with the Far East and thus visit Indian coastal towns on their long journeys.
The development of Emerson’s innate idealism had been aided by the philosophy of Greece, the ethics of China, the poetry of the Sufis, and the mysticism of India. Emerson, a keen student of the Bhagavad Gita, was familiar with the Upanishadic doctrines and published translations of religious and philosophical tracts from the Oriental languages. His beautiful poem ‘Brahma’ and his essay ‘The Over-Soul’ show clearly his indebtedness to Hindu spiritual thought. But Emerson’s spirit, pre-eminently ethical and intellectual, could not grasp the highest flights of Hindu mysticism; it accepted only what was in harmony with a somewhat shallow optimism. Emerson’s writings later influenced the New Thought movement and Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science.
Thoreau, Emerson’s neighbour for twenty-five years, read and discussed with him in great detail the Hindu religious classics. Thoreau wrote: ‘I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and literature seem puny and trivial.’ He wanted to write a joint Bible, gathering material from the Asiatic scriptures, and took for his motto Ex Oriente Lux.
Alcott was genuine friend of Indian culture. He was instrumental in bringing out the American edition of Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia, and this made the life and teachings of Buddha accessible, for the first time, to American readers.
The Transcendental Club, founded in Concord, near Boston, reached its height by 1840. The American Oriental Society was formed in 1842, with aims similar to those of the European Oriental societies.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892), a contemporary of the Concord philosophers, seems to have come very near to Vedantic idealism. There is no reliable evidence to show that Whitman was directly influenced by Hindu thought. He is reputed to have denied it himself. A great religious individualist, he was free from all church conventions and creeds. To him, religion consisted entirely of inner illumination, ‘the secret silent ecstasy.’ It is not known if he practised any definite religious disciplines; most probably he did not. Yet Swami Vivekananda once called Whitman ‘the sannyasin of America.’ Leaves of Grass, which Swami Vivekananda read, breathes the spirit of identity with all forms of life, and Whitman’s ‘Song of the Open Road’ is full of the sentiments that were nearest to the heart of Vivekananda. Here, for example, are three stanzas:
I inhale great draughts of space;
The east and the west are mine;
and the north and the south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought;
I did not know I held so much goodness.
Allons! We must not stop here!
However sweet these laid-up stores —
however convenient this dwelling,
we cannot remain here;
However shelter’d this port,
and however calm these waters,
we must not anchor here;
However welcome the hospitality
that surrounds us, we are permitted
to receive it but a little while.
Allons! Be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten,
and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop!
let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand!
mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in the pulpit!
let the lawyer plead in the court,
and the judge expound the law.
There are several reasons why the marriage of East and West dreamt of by Emerson and Thoreau did not take place. The Gold Rush of 1849, to California, had turned people’s attention in other directions. Then had come the Civil War, in which brother had fought brother and men’s worst passions had been let loose. Lastly, the development of science and technology had brought about a great change in people’s outlook, intensifying their desire for material prosperity.
The publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 changed the Weltanschauung of the Western world, and its repercussions were felt more in the New World than in Europe. Within a decade, intellectual people gave up their belief in the Biblical story of creation and did not hesitate to trace man’s origin back to an apelike ancestor, and beyond that to a primordial protoplasmic atomic globule. The implications of evolution were incorporated into every field of thought — law, history, economics, sociology, philosophy, religion, and art; transcendentalism was replaced by empiricism, instrumentalism, and pragmatism. The American life-current thus was turned into a new channel. When America had been comparatively poor she had cherished her spiritual heritage. In the midst of her struggle for existence she had preserved her spiritual sensitivity. But in the wake of the Civil War the desire to posses ‘bigger and better things’ cast its spell everywhere. Big utilities and corporations came into existence; the spiritual and romantic glow of the frontier days degenerated into the sordidness of competitive materialistic life, while the unceasing flow of crude immigrants from Europe made difficult the stabilization of American culture.
Emerson was disillusioned by the aftermath of the Civil War. He had hoped ‘that in the peace after such a war, a great expansion would follow in the mind of the country, grand views in every direction — true freedom in politics, in religion, in social science, in thought. But the energy of the nation seems to have expended itself in the war.’
Walt Whitman was even more caustic. He wrote bitterly:
Society in the States is cramped, crude, superstitious, and rotten…. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness of heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us….; The great cities reek with respectable, as much as non-respectable, robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time…. I say that our New World Democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs in materialistic development, and in a certain highly deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is so far an almost complete failure in its social aspects. In vain do we march with unprecedented strides to empire so colossal, outvying the antique, beyond Alexander’s, beyond the proudest sway of Rome. In vain we annexed Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north for Canada or south for Cuba. It is as if we were somehow being endowed with a vast and thoroughly appointed body, and left with little or no soul.
But the material prosperity or the triumph of science could not destroy the innate idealism of the American mind. It remained hidden like embers under ashes. Thoughtful Americans longed for a philosophy which, without going counter to the scientific method, would show the way to a larger vision of life, harmonizing the diverse claims of science, the humanities, and mystical experience. Now the time was ripe for the fulfilment of Thoreau’s dream of the marriage of East and West, a real synthesis of science and religion. And to bring this about, no worthier person could have been found than Swami Vivekananda of India. This accounts for the spontaneous welcome received by this representative of Hinduism, who brought to America an ancient and yet dynamic philosophy of life.