Thursday, September 19, 2013


11th September, 1893, just a hundred and twenty years down memory lane, was a memorable day in the history of India & America, and for that matter, for humanity at large. On this day Swami Vivekananda, the ‘cyclonic Hindoo monk’ delivered his famous speech at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago, which swept the American audience off their feet. His oft quoted address,’ Sisters and Brothers of America’ went straight to the heart of all Americans there, as evident from the legendary standing ovation & applause for long two minutes from an audience of seven thousand. The Swami’s short and crisp speech conveyed a clear message of love and universality of eternal relevance. Swamiji, the epitome of love, strength and fearlessness, proclaimed with vigour “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true”. This enigmatic personality portrayed the message of oneness and condemned all feelings of hatred and intolerance with his clear pronouncement, “Sectarianism, bigotry, and it’s horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth…. the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen.” Despite the brevity of his speech, it voiced the spirit and sense of universality of the parliament. The impact of this first delivery was overwhelming.
Now 120 years later, what impact do we feel in the West of the tide Swamiji had then brought in? This question plagues many an admirer of the great monk and his ideology. Do we remember him as a name, as a picture from history or something more? The first impression is disheartening. The fast life buried in consumerism, and infiltrated by anger, greed, violence and terror bears no testimony to an impact of Swamiji’s message of universal love and tolerance. His is not a well-known name in the West, rarely is he mentioned in history either.
Take a second look, friends, and delve in a bit deeper—you can feel a different pulse, a throb resonating from a wave raised back in the 1890s. Astonishingly, the impulse is sometimes stronger in distant zones, far-away from home!
I take immense pleasure in sharing a unique experience of feeling the lively presence of Swamiji in a quaint little American town, Annisquam in Massachusetts. What a wonderful experience to find him thriving with full fervour in this remote corner of America, in the year 2013, remembered and honoured by Americans, as their own.
Annisquam is a picturesque, quaint little waterfront town near Boston, founded way back in 1631. The Annisquam village church, founded in 1728, also has a history to boast of. Shaped out of a Protestant heritage, this church is a part of the “Community Church Movement” through affiliation with the International Council of Community Churches (ICCC), an interracial, international fellowship composed of congregations and church bodies with a global vision expressed through local ministries. 

 It was at this Universalist church that Swamiji delivered his first public lecture in the USA, on the 27th of August, 1893 on ‘Customs and life in India’. He was introduced to the local New England audience by Prof John Wright, the renowned Professor of Greek Philology at Harvard. He was a great friend and ardent admirer of Swamiji and had proclaimed, “He is more learned than all our professors together”. Swamiji had stayed at Annisquam for 3days on his first visit (25th-27th August 1893), from where he proceeded to Chicago with a letter of introduction to the World Congress of Religions, from Prof Wright (who had then commented, "To ask you, Swami, for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine!”). He later again visited this beautiful coastal town in 1894 from 17th August to 5th September as a guest of Mrs Bagley, staying at the Hyatt’s residence.

This is all history. But how Annisquam remembers Swamiji today was a wonder awaiting us! It all began with an invitation to attend the 150th birth anniversary celebration of Swami Vivekananda at Annisquam on the 28th July, 2013. This event was being organised by the historical Annisquam Village Church, along-with the Vedanta Society of Boston, MA and Providence, RI, in the form of a special inter-faith service.   

The Annisquam Village Church is a small dainty shrine on the shoreline, very serene and peaceful. On this summer afternoon of the 28th July, the chapel was full-- people from all walks of life, with varying colour, creed, language and nationality, but with a common countenance of enthusiasm and interest had gathered to take part in this historical event. This was not a ritualistic annual celebration as we often see, it was an event with full participation, to share feelings of common interest—Swamiji and his message.                                   
The first look at the chancel was breath taking! There stood Swamiji, confidently smiling at us from the pulpit, as he had stood 120 years back. Very aptly, the pastor of the church, Rev. White mentioned in her speech, “There he is amongst us”.

The Rev. Deirdre White sat with the two revered monks from the RK Mission Vedanta Societies, Swami Tyaganandaji and Swami Yogatmanandaji on the dais, as the program began with Indian classical music on sitar, as a prelude. 


The easy blend of the eastern and western culture was striking  through-out the program. The Vedic chanting and devotional Indian songs were complemented by the church choir led by Ms Kathleen Adams, as well as contemporary Rap music presented by Ms Hannah Resseger. They all seemed to fit into each other seamlessly, with that invisible binding force-the eternal message of love and universality. 

Vedic chanting by monks of the Ramakrishna order from the podium of a church, before an Indo-American crowd was unique itself; but when the village church choir sang out loud,
What words came down to grace his lips on that September day!
The hall was large, but larger still his voice rang out strong until
The farthest corner it did fill, and no one quite could say
What raised the list’ners to their feet or made them cheer that way.” was awesome!

To hear a familiar Bengali song on Swamiji (Moder Vivekananda tumi go, Viswa Vivekananda) being sung in perfect tune by a group of Bengalee professionals, 12,000 miles away from their homeland in this church was thrilling enough, but, the Rap that followed with “Stop not till the goal is reached “ as its core-line, sung in chorus, was simply breath-taking. Dearest Hannah, how did you imbibe the spirit of Swamiji so perfectly? What divine force helped you overcome the barriers of time, distance and culture?

The interfaith service with speeches from both monks and Rev White were all very apt and thought provoking. Rev White talked of universality and one-ness, quoting Sri Ramakrishna fluently from The Gospel. In the same line came in Swami Tyaganandji and Swami Yogatmanandaji, talking of the relevance of Swamiji’s message in today’s world. All the speakers emphasised on the message of
eternal love, of fearlessness, of faith in oneself, of service as worship & the message of introspection and subjective approach to the world by changing the way we look at the world. We might forget the looks & tales of Swamiji, but if we adhere to his fundamental ideology, we will survive the asphyxiated state that we are in today.

We were also treated with a wonderfully lyrical poem by the honoured poet laureate of Annisquam, a professor of English Literature at UMass, Boston, portraying Swamiji’s visit to the West and its relevance in the lives of Americans.

The greatest surprise still awaited the audience. The last event was a skit played by the local school children, portraying Swamiji’s arrival in Massachusetts.
How wonderfully these youngsters performed! It was amazing to imagine the amount of effort that went in to inculcate the ideas and feelings of Swamiji into these children who are totally alien to the life and background of Swamiji.

 As Jett Sayess acted out the scene of the Parliament of Religions and recited Swamiji’s speech, one could feel the sincere efforts behind the performance. This bright young American lad, Jett, seemed to have truly stepped out of the cut-out of Swamiji, standing beside the podium. 

This was Swamiji for this generation, for this Western world, and we have truly accepted him!


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