Swami Vivekananda, the yoga missionary

18 January 2013 Last updated at 00:13 GMT


By Emily Buchanan BBC world affairs correspondent


Swami Vivekananda had a huge following but died aged 39

Few in the west have heard of Swami Vivekananda, who was born 150 years ago this week. Yet this Bengali intellectual, still revered in India, introduced many people to yoga and meditation.

The crunch of car tyres on gravel, the heavy smell of an imminent thunderstorm, swaying elm trees – random childhood memories of my grandmother’s house, Ridgely, in upstate New York.

I also dimly remember casual references to a Swami. “That was Swami’s sofa.” “The end room – that is where the Swami used to sleep.”

I would collect fallen branches from a huge fir tree for the Alsatian dog to chew – it was known as “prophet Swami’s pine”.

Then there were those fading sepia photographs of Victorian ladies in hats and long dresses standing next to a striking young Indian with a turban and large expressive eyes.

None of it meant much to me back then in the 1970s. It is only recently I have realized that this Swami was in fact one of India’s most influential spiritual teachers – the first to package eastern philosophy for the West.

My family had invited him to stay in this house and helped him publicise his work.

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Swami Vivekananda was a Bengali intellectual and chief disciple of the Hindu mystic Ramakrishna. His talent was in distilling complex ancient texts down to a simple message – that all religions are equal and God is inside everyone.

He first shot to stardom at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He called for tolerance and the end of religious fanaticism – by a strange coincidence the date was 11 September (or 9/11), 1893.

After his first words, “Sisters and brothers of America”, there was a standing ovation – women fell over each other to get a closer look at this handsome Hindu monk with ochre robes and turban who spoke flawless English in a deep authoritative voice.

He became hugely in demand and people flocked to his lectures.

To those used to the Judeo-Christian view of an external God, his ideas on yoga and meditation were exciting and new.

The Ridgely house today and the tree under which Vivekananda held talks

In between long lecture tours round America, Vivekananda used to rest at Ridgely – then owned by my great-grandparents.

A hundred years later, the house has passed to the followers of his Vedanta teaching.

In India today, Vivekananda is revered as a saint, but in the west he is virtually unknown”

When I went back there, I was surprised to find it had changed remarkably little, except the home in which I used to romp around and throw beanbags is now treated as a holy place of pilgrimage, where devotees tiptoe in respect.

Volunteers dig the vegetable patch and mend the crumbling pipes, working to preserve the beautiful old clapboard house. To them it is not just a property but a shrine to a holy man.

A steady stream of quiet, thoughtful people arrive for lectures on the ancient Hindu texts, the Vedas, and chanting sessions. It is all very understated and peaceful – a slice of India being nurtured in the heart of New England.

One Indian couple from New Jersey said they came to feel Vivekananda’s presence, perhaps hoping a residue of the great man’s holiness would rub off. They even touched me on the arm, as if being a descendant of the family who helped him somehow made me special too.

The Dalai Lama attended Vivekananda’s 150th anniversary celebrations

In charge of the Retreat Centre is a dynamic Californian nun from the Ramakrishna order called Pravrajika Gitaprana. She showed me around.

“His bed has been shipped to India, but this room is where he slept, this dining room is where he ate,” she told me, as we wandered through the house.

“It was a place he could just be himself. He used to roller-skate down the corridor, and he loved ice cream.”

She pointed at the “Prophet’s Pine” and explained: “That grew from a seedling taken from a tree in Maine. Swami Vivekananda used to hold his talks under it. The tiny sapling was planted by your great-great-aunt, Josephine Macleod.”

“Joe Joe” as Vivekananda called her, had become one of his lifelong friends and supporters.

Josephine Macleod (far left) travelled to Kashmir with Vivekananda

She went as far as embarking on her own 19th Century hippy trail, travelling with him and other disciples to India. I noticed a photograph of her with the Swami in a remote part of Kashmir.

It was almost unheard of in those days for white ladies and Indians to travel together.

Many thousands have since followed her to seek spiritual enlightenment in India.

Hundreds of gurus and swamis, some holier than others, have lured them there. But to Josephine, her penniless wandering monk was incorruptible – a true mystic.

In India today, Vivekananda is revered as a saint. In the west he is virtually unknown.

But then, Gitaprana told me, “he would not have minded, he did not want to be worshipped slavishly or remembered for all eternity. He just wanted people to discover the prophet, Buddha or Christ inside themselves”.


Netaji, Hindutva and nationalism

By Kanchan Gupta on January 23, 2013

As the nation, or what passes for it in this wondrous land with an abysmally poor sense of history, observes the 116th birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, perhaps the time has come for one of India’s great leaders to be freed from the confines of political myth-making that has reduced him to calendar lithographs which adorn living rooms in provincial Bengal and the dimly lit offices of the Forward Bloc in Kolkata.

In a sense, that would mark the posthumous homecoming for a nationalist who believed that rashtrabhakti is a synthesis of religion and nationalism, of the spiritual and the political. In the early decades of this century, when others were looking up to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi for inspiration, Bose was looking elsewhere for guidance: His search for a religious philosophy that would spur political activism led him to explore the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and the writings of Aurobindo Ghosh. The latter made a lasting impression on his mind, providing his political activism with a religious side.

The profound Impact that Aurobindo Ghosh had on Subhas Chandra Bose is reflected in his autobiography: “In my undergraduate days, Aurobindo Ghosh was easily the most popular leader in Bengal… a mixture of spirituality and politics had given him a halo of mysticism and made his personality more fascinating to those who were religiously inclined… We felt convinced that spiritual enlightenment was necessary for effective national service…”

It is, therefore, not surprising that he should have also been influenced by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s construction of nationalism. And like Aurobindo Ghosh, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the Indian nation for him extended beyond the geographical to the devotional plane. During his college days he discovered the wretchedness of not India but “impoverished Mother India.”

Curiously, his view of the other India, the one which appears so distant from the fashionable drawing rooms and glittering malls of our cities, is not different from those who believe that a divide separates ‘us’ and ‘them’. For, “the picture of real India”, which Subhas Chandra Bose described as “the India of the villages where poverty stalks the land, men die like flies, and illiteracy is the prevailing order”, is also the India which many believe should receive priority over that India which revels in rejecting anything that carries the label ‘Made in India’, including Hindu spirituality and religious philosophy.

In his book, Brothers Against The Raj, Leonard A Gordon writes about Bose’s quest for a religious philosophy to serve as the core of nationalism and sustain his political activism: “Inner religious explorations continued to be a part of his adult life. This set him apart from the slowly growing number of atheistic socialists and communists who dotted the Indian landscape.” And it was this “religious exploration” that set apart Subhas Chandra Bose from Jawaharlal Nehru for whom “this was a vain quest”. Although Bose scrupulously avoided publishing his faith or his quest, he remained firm in his belief that “Hinduism was an essential part of his Indianness”, his Bharatiyata. In other words, he subscribed to cultural nationalism or, call it If you must by its other name, Hindutva.

This did not, however, make him a bigoted Hindu, nor did it propel him towards Hindu orthodoxy. Commenting on the “definite Hindu streak in Bose’s dislike for Gandhi”, Nirad C Chaudhuri records in his memoirs, Thy Hand! Great Anarch, “He was in no sense a bigoted or even orthodox Hindu. But he had grown up in the first two decades of the twentieth century in Bengal, where, owing to the influence of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Swami Vivekananda, there was a fusion of religion and nationalism, so that the nationalist feeling had a pronounced Hindu complexion and Hinduism a pronounced political character.”

This “fusion of religion and nationalism” and Hinduism with a “pronounced political character” came into play in 1925 when during his incarceration at Mandalay prison, Subhas Chandra Bose, along with the other Bengali prisoners, organised Durga Puja on the jail premises and demanded that the expenses be borne by the authorities. When the latter refused, Bose converted his spiritual quest into a political campaign by launching a hunger strike. This practice of political Hinduism had an electrifying impact on public opinion and soon the Swarajists lent their voice to the popular demand for the release of all political prisoners who had not been charged with specific crimes.

Those who deride nationalism, more so cultural nationalism, as narrow, selfish and aggressive, a hindrance to the promotion of internationalism, would do well to go through Bose’s speech at Poona after being elected president of the Maharashtra Provincial Conference. “Indian nationalism,” Subhas Chandra Bose asserted, “is inspired by the highest ideals of the human race, Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram. Nationalism in India has… roused the creative faculties which for centuries had been lying dormant in our people…”

Sadly, nationalism has now been rendered politically incorrect by our deracinated intelligentsia and abandoned by our corrupt political elite.

(This is a revised version of an article published more than a decade ago.)

Lost in Kumbh? This man will find you!

Raja Ram Tiwari has helped as many as ten lakh lost people find their family members in the confusion and clamour of such holy gatherings, says Sharat Pradhan

Many a twins in the world of Hindi films may have been separated in the melee of Kumbh Mela – the largest gathering of people on the planet.

Millions of the faithful and the curious gather at the bank of the Sangam — the holy confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna in Allahabad — to take a dip in the holy waters to wash away their sins

During the British era, the colonial rulers did precious little to make the experience a less daunting one for the many people at Kumbh Mela. The Maha Kumbh, held once in 12 years, was infamous as a place where people got separated from their loved ones and eventually went missing.

In 1946, a 19-year-old took it upon himself to do something to bring an end to this infamy about the Kumbh Mela.

“It is true that people could get lost in the midst of such a huge crowd. I felt that it would be worthwhile to do something to reunite the lost people. At least it would help the Kumbh Mela to shed the tag of a place where people got separated,” recalls Raja Ram Tiwari.

He is 86 years old now but continues to pursue his mission doggedly.

Tiwari has helped as many as ten lakh lost people find their family members in the confusion and clamour of such holy gatherings. Perched on a rickety wooden chair with a rusty desk, Tiwari shares this mind-boggling number with us.

“Most of them were from the six Maha Kumbhs and seven Ardh Kumbh melas. Some of them were also from the annual Magh melas,” he said.

“I started with a few volunteers who joined me to form the Bharat Seva Dal, which now has nearly 150 members and is providing excellent service to society without seeking anything in return,” he adds.

Asked about the changes he has witnessed over the years, he said, “Well, it is the sheer size of the event. Our country’s population has grown so much. The number of people attending these melas has also continued to grow. But the logistics behind such gatherings has also changed.”

He adds, “During the initial years, when there was no electricity connection at the bank of the Sangam and battery operated microphones were rare and expensive, I used to go round the mela area with hand-held rustic loud-speakers, announcing the names and particulars of the people who would end up at our ‘lost and found persons’ camp. That was no mean task as it involved walking miles and miles every day. But our labour bore fruit as we were successful in reuniting many lost ones with their family members.”

He continued, “The difference in the magnitude of the mela can be assessed by the statistics. In the 1954 Maha Kumbh, 3,529 men and women and 152 children got lost. In the last Maha Kumbh in 2001, over one lakh people reported at our camp. I am sure the figure will be higher this time.”

And what happens to those who family members cannot be traced?

“Well, we keep them at this camp where we have the basic necessary amenities. Repeated announcements, which go on round the clock, do work. Sometimes it takes two to four days (to find their family members). In case the waiting period is longer, we send them to a local philanthropic ashram,” he says.

Those who are in a position to find their own way home are provided with a ticket, food and a small amount of money to reach their homes, he added.
The octogenarian recalls one particularly difficult case.

“During the last Kumbh Mela, a dumb and partially deaf woman, in her mid-thirties, ended up in our camp. She could not read or write. There was no trace of her family for nine days. On the tenth day, we noticed that she was repeatedly pointing towards a green tree in the neighbourhood. I promptly asked her if her husband’s name was Hari and she nodded,” he says.

“One by one, I added all the possible suffixes to Hari. When I mentioned ‘Hari Shankar’, she affirmed that name with a wide exclamation. That made our task easier. The following day, in a chance interaction with someone from her village, I mentioned the missing woman’s case and the name of her husband. Within the next 24 hours, he brought the poor woman’s husband. I can’t tell you what a delight it was for all of us (to see them united), just as it as for the two of them,” he says.

Tiwari, who wonders if he would be there to witness the next Maha Kumbh in 2125, is glad to have a son who is ready to carry on his father’s legacy.

“I have assisted my father all these years. I would be only too happy to fulfill his dream of carrying the mission forward,” said his son Umesh Chandra Tiwari.