kubrawi People Symposium marks 130th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s arrival in the United States

Symposium marks 130th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s arrival in the United States

Swami Vivekananda, seated second from right, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Sept. 11, 1893, in Chicago. Others seated on stage are Virchand Gandhi, from left, Hewivitarne Dharmapala and possibly G. Bonet Maury. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) — In July 1893, a young Hindu monk from Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, came to the United States. His goal was to make the West aware of Hinduism, one of the world’s oldest religions that had, however, been largely misunderstood, misinterpreted, and vilified by the West.

Swami Vivekananda’s tour of the United States would mark what would become the first exposure most non-Hindus in the West had to Hinduism. Swami Vivekananda, born Narendranath Datta, was just 30 years old and became an international ambassador for the faith, thanks to his electrifying speeches at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago and at invited lectures around the country.

Vivekananda became known as the missionary of Hinduism to the world, despite not seeking to convert others. His teachings spread throughout the United States, particularly through the propagation of Vedanta philosophy, the core of the Vedas, and the establishment of Vedanta Societies.

On the occasion of the 130th anniversary of his arrival, the Free Library of Philadelphia and followers of Vivekananda’s philosophy have organized a symposium on his teachings, his message and his impact this Saturday. The symposium on April 29, which will be both face-to-face and virtual, will feature talks by Swami Tyagananda, director of the Vedanta Society in Boston and Hindu chaplain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard; Deven Patel, associate professor of South Asian studies at the University of Pennsylvania; and Jeffery D. Long, professor of religion, philosophy, and Asian studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. The Rev. Stephen Avino, executive director of this year’s Parliament of the World’s Religions, will also provide comments on Vivekananda’s impact on understanding faith beyond the Abrahamic lens.

Long said that Swami Vivekananda has an enduring legacy because he articulated the idea that religion and spirituality are a personal quest for self-improvement rather than collective ties to dogma and doctrine.

“Swami Vivekananda spoke about universal concerns that are likely to remain relevant in all times and places: the search for spirituality and for a deeper meaning and purpose in life, and questions such as the nature of consciousness, the nature of the self and the basics. of ethics,” he said. “Swami Vivekananda advocated for the freedom of people to ask questions without fear, without being bound by dogmatism. His teaching is reflected in the rise of the ‘spiritual but not religious movement’”.

Swami Vivekananda in Chicago during the Parliament of the World’s Religions in September 1893. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Divya Nair, a member of the Vedanta Society and a key organizer of the symposium, said Swami Vivekananda’s message of pluralism and personal connection to the divine remains powerful today.

“We often think of religion as something apart from us, but Swamiji teaches us to dive deep, tap into our innate strength and change our perception of what we are seeing,” Nair said. “As we face calamities of various scales and magnitudes today, this lesson is very important: we gain the strength to calmly bear witness and patiently persevere in our search for peace, reality and truth, no matter who or where we are.”

Prior to the symposium, the organizers held weekly sessions on Vivekananda’s teachings, led by Patel. Nair said attendees shared how inspired they were by the lessons and how much they learned about the pioneering monk.

A philosopher and activist ahead of his time

What made Swami Vivekananda so influential to Hindus and non-Hindus alike was his marriage of Hindu philosophy with practice. A disciple of the Hindu spiritual leader Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda explained the idea of ​​yoga to the West. While the physical practice of yoga would slowly separate from its Hindu philosophical roots in later years, Vivekananda was important in demystifying it for curious Westerners.

He was also one of the first international visitors to the United States to speak out against racial injustice. During one of his tours of the American South, Vivekananda spoke out against the segregation of train cars and other facilities, refusing to sit in the “whites only” section of a train, a privilege initially possible. thanks to a white benefactor who sponsored his speech. in Tennessee.

In India, Vivekananda spoke out strongly against the caste system, arguing that it went against Hindu scriptures and that he was not indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. Although Vivekananda’s message was not unlike that of hundreds of well-known Hindu sages, reformers, and lay leaders who came before him, his impact was most pronounced due to his ability to articulate ideas for both Hindu audiences and colonial authorities. British. Caste only became a legal identity in India during the British Raj in the 19th century, but Vivekananda argued that any form of caste went against the core of Vedic philosophy, which teaches the unity of all beings.

He also argued against the politicization of religion, particularly when it became a weapon to divide different groups.

“Swami Vivekananda spoke against bigotry, bigotry and intolerance and advocated for the harmony of religions,” Long said. “This message is still desperately needed as religion continues to be used as a way to divide humanity against itself and to justify violence.”

Although he died before his 40th birthday in 1902, Vivekananda’s legacy on the Indian subcontinent and around the world lives on more than a century later, Long said, noting the “many scholars and artists who found inspiration in his teachings: writers like Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, and JD Salinger; scholars like Joseph Campbell, whose work inspired George Lucas to create the “Star Wars” movies, which contain echoes of Swami Vivekananda’s thoughts on the teachings of the Jedi; and musicians like George Harrison, who read Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga early in his own journey, and who inspired millions to investigate Indian philosophy and meditative practice.”

Long added that despite this influence, Vivekananda remains largely unknown to many, especially in the internet age.

“I would say that the full impact of Swami Vivekananda on the world has yet to be fully felt and appreciated,” he said.

Murali Balaji.  Photo via University of Pennsylvania

Murali Balaji. Photo via University of Pennsylvania

The symposium organizers hope they can help teach a new generation of students about the impact of the legendary monk. For more information and to register for the symposium, visit the Free Library symposium page.

(Murali Balaji is a journalist and professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He is editor of “digital hinduism” and author of “The teacher and the student”, a political biography by WEB Du Bois and Paul Robeson. The views expressed in this comment do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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