January 12, 2013

Swami Vivekananda at 150.

Celebrating the Jackie Robinson of Gurus

Visitors exiting the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue are often perplexed by the street sign that reads Swami Vivekananda Way.

What is it doing there? Who is this swami and why does he deserve an honorary street name like Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Hefner and other Chicago legends?

Most Americans would not have a clue, but interfaith activists do, and Hindus do, and a great many yoga practitioners and students of Eastern philosophy do…and everyone in India certainly does. And this year, millions more will learn why Vivekananda remains a revered figure more than a century after his passing.

January 12th is the 150th anniversary of his birth and celebrations and tributes will be held all year throughout India and much of the West.

The leading disciple of the legendary 19th Century saint, Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda came to the U.S. in 1893 for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a 17-day festival in the midst of a huge world’s fair called the Columbian Exposition. He was an exotic sight in his orange robes and turban; very few Americans had even met a Jew or a Muslim at the time, much less a Hindu monk.

Against all odds, the swami became an instant sensation, not as some carnival attraction but as a fresh, erudite voice that spoke with authority, in impeccable English, about his own tradition, religious harmony, and the universal truths at the unseen depths of all religions.

He quickly encountered two types of Americans that are familiar to us all today: Christian supremacists who denounced him as a dangerous heathen preaching false religion; and open-minded, rational, spiritual seekers who found his message and his demeanor irresistible. He was, in a sense, the Jackie Robinson of spirituality, a bold and talented figure shattering widespread misconceptions and biases.

Through word of mouth and adulatory press coverage, he became such a superstar that extra talks had to be scheduled for him to accommodate the crowds that flooded the amphitheater in the building that would later become the Art Institute. Hence, the location of Swami Vivekananda Way.

Because he was in demand on the lecture circuit, he remained in America longer than anticipated: more than three years in two separate trips. He passed away in India in 1902, and, like Mozart, Gershwin, and other rare shooting stars who never reached the age of 40, he produced a remarkable legacy in his few productive years.

In voluminous writings, some of which were converted from his numerous lectures, he articulated for the modern age the essential teachings of Vedanta, the philosophical system that stems primarily from the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. His four slim books on the principal pathways of Yoga—karma (selfless action), bhakti (devotion), jnana (intellectual discernment) and raja (meditation and spiritual practice)—became the authoritative descriptions of those categories and to a large extent they remain so in today’s yoga-saturated world because they set the tone for much of the subsequent commentary on the subject.

In America, Vivekananda’s most enduring impact may be the organization he created to perpetuate his work.

The Vedanta Society, which eventually established centers in most major U.S. cities, was the place for seekers interested in Hinduism, Indian philosophy and yogic meditation in the early part of the 20th century. Through its publications and the swamis who came from India to run the centers, it was the leading voice for what the title of one of its widely-read anthologies called Vedanta for the Western World.

A large percentage of the students drawn to later gurus who rocked our world, such as Paramahansa Yogananda and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who was also born on January 12), were primed by the Vivekananda lineage. In mid-century Vedanta Society, swamis mentored some of the most prominent thinkers and writers in American history.

If you’ve had transformative moments reading Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, Huston Smith or if you identified with the eccentric spirituality of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family, you were touched by Vivekananda, whether you realized it or not.

That 1893 gathering of religious leaders would probably not even be remembered if the token Hindu hadn’t ignited such a fervent response. Instead, it launched the modern interfaith movement and catalyzed an East-to-West transmission that has reshaped America’s spiritual landscape.

For those reasons and more, you will be hearing about Swami Vivekananda a great deal in the coming year…and so will people 150 years from now.

Yogis everywhere should bow to his memory.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise



(Source: 2.bp.blogspot.com via Mikah on Pinterest)


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Katie Greaves Lopez Jan 13, 2013 2:00pm

I was walking through the Chicago Art Institute a few years back and was astounded to see the words "Bhagavad Gita" scroll across one of the risers of the grand staircase. I looked a little more closely and realized this was an art exhibit based on Swami Vivekananda's speech to the Parliament of World Religions. His words were lit up in the red, yellow, and orange colors of the old Homeland Security alert. The artist, Jitish Kallat, noticed that the Swami's speech, pleading for religious tolerance, had been made on September 11, 1893. He surely felt that we needed to hear Vivekananda's words today. Vivekananda was a visionary and his message of religious tolerance is timeless. I believe he would include tolerance toward different paths of yoga,

Vijay Vadlamani Jan 13, 2013 10:18am

The Paramahamsa's, and consequently Swami Vivekananda's, main concern about hatha yoga practice is that it may lead the practitioners to focus primarily on their body. Take a look at the most popular articles here on Elephant Journal and you'll see that they weren't too far off.

Scott Miller Jan 12, 2013 8:25pm

V was incredibly heroic and a great spiritualist, yes. And his teacher, Ramakrishna, was one of my favorite spiritual figures in history. But to ask people on a blog filled with hatha yoga practitioners to bow to the man who may very well be more responsible than anyone else for the confusion still active today about what hatha yoga is, only makes me smirk. The hutzpah. If V had gotten his way, people would have avoided "the physical yoga." FIrst of all, hatha yoga was never just the physical yoga as V claimed. Second, hatha yoga is the yoga of our time. Given its popularity, all we need to do know is get everyone to know what it is: the yoga of energy. It is Yoga's crowning evolutionary achievement because of its inclusiveness and accessibility. It's for everyone, and despite the century and a half long confusion V caused, we all actually practice hatha yoga pretty well in connection with a lot of great styles: Ashtanga, Iyengar, Yin Yoga, Sivananda, etc. It's just our common-level understanding of what hatha yoga is that is so confused, and we have V to thank for initiating the problem here in the US. So bow? Nope.

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Philip Goldberg

Philip Goldberg is an acclaimed author and public speaker whose numerous books include the award-winning American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West; Roadsigns on the Spiritual Path: Living at the Heart of Paradox; and the recently published biography, The Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru. A meditation teacher and ordained Interfaith Minister, he is also the cohost of the popular Spirit Matters podcast and leads American Veda Tours to India. See his website for more.