Swami Vivekananda: His name & his Ideas

My name should not be made prominent; it is my ideas that I want to see realized. The disciples of all the prophets have always inextricably mixed up the ideas of the Master with the person, and at last killed the ideas for the person. The disciples of Shri Ramakrishna must guard against doing the same thing. Work for the idea, not the person. The Lord bless you.[1]

In a letter to his Madras disciple Alasinga Perumal, Swamiji wrote the above words. Why would Swamiji have written something like this? He had a horror of future generations creating a hollow, sentimental personality cult around him or his Master, Sri Ramakrishna, completely ignoring the life-transforming message they brought down as revelation from their communion with God.

Father Antony DeMello tells an amazing story that puts Swamiji’s apprehension in the correct perspective.

The hero had just returned from the deep Amazon forests. His lectures were all recorded and his journeys were mapped meticulously. All the flowers he saw were reproduced on paper, drawings made of the wild animals he encountered and the entire river was charted on a cartographer’s table. A group of young men approached him once to hear directly from him about the Amazon. He said, “Indeed I have tried my best to describe it all as clearly as I could. But how can I convey to you the intense joy, the exhilaration, the strange feelings that flooded my heart when I saw those exotic flowers & heard those night sounds in the forests & sensed the danger of being close to those wild animals & of paddling in those treacherous rapids! Go out and find out for yourselves, young men.” Those young fellows understood. They went out, found the master map, framed it, and using the pioneer’s lectures and drawings, became experts in interpreting the Amazon map. [2]

The intrepid story-teller that Father DeMello was, he tells another terrifying story, whose parallels with religious history are obvious:

After many year of labor, an inventor discovered the art of making fire. He took his tool to the snow-clad northern regions and initiated a tribe into the art – and the advantages – of making fire. The people became so absorbed in this novelty that it did not occur to them to thank the inventor who one day quietly slipped away. Being one of those rare human beings endowed with greatness, he had no desire to be remembered or revered; all he sought was the satisfaction of knowing that someone had benefitted from his discovery.

The next tribe he went to was just as eager to learn as the first. But the local priests, jealous of the stranger’s hold on the people, had him assassinated. To allay any suspicion of the crime, they had a portrait of the Great inventor enthroned upon the main altar of the temple; and a liturgy designed so that his name would be revered and his memory kept alive. The greatest care was taken that not a single rubric of the liturgy was altered or omitted. The tools for making fire were enshrined in a casket and were said to bring healing to all who laid their hands on them with faith. The High Priest himself undertook the task of compiling a life of the Inventor. This became the Holy Book in which his loving kindness was offered as an example for all to emulate. His glorious deeds were eulogized, his superhuman nature made an article of faith. The priests saw to it that the Book was handed down to future generations, while they authoritatively interpreted the meaning of his words and the significance of his holy life and death. And they ruthlessly punished with death or excommunication anyone who deviated from their doctrine. Caught up as they were in their religious tasks, the people completely forgot the art of making fire.[3]

So, it is no wonder that Swamiji felt so strongly about the dissemination of his message, even at the cost of his name. The fire his Great Master had lit had to be passed on. While previously in the lives of prophets, we saw that they had a chain of disciples, through whom, the original inspiration, the original fire, was passed down by a ‘laying on of hands’, the prophet of the present age adopted a totally different method. Look at this conversation Swamiji had with Priyanath Sinha:

I (Priyanath Sinha) asked him, “Well, Swamiji, how many disciples have you in the West?”

Swamiji: “A good many”

Priyanath Sinha: “Two or three thousand?”

Swamiji: “Maybe more than that.”

Priyanath Sinha: “Are they all initiated by you with Mantras?”

Swamiji: “Yes.”

Priyanath Sinha: “Did you give them permission to utter Pranava (Om)?”

Swamiji: “Yes.”[4]

            We must pause for a moment and realize the implications of these words of the great Swami Vivekananda. Swamiji himself distributed the immense power he had, directly among the masses, not confining it to a handful of chosen disciples. This is unprecedented in the history of mankind. Naturally the question that arises in our minds is: What has been the impact of his unprecedented act of mass-distribution of spiritual power? There has to be some visible result of this act. We are not speaking of an ordinary spiritual person here; Swamiji was a prophet of the highest order! It is impossible not to feel something of the impact of his personality upon the multitudes with whom he came in contact.

Sister Gargi presents a wonderful analysis of this issue in her magnum opus, ‘Swami Vivekananda – New Discoveries in the West’: Such people, whose lives Swamiji had touched, must, in turn, have touched the lives of others with that powerful magic, and so on, in ever-widening circles, until the impact of his thought would gradually spread on untraceable routes to every corner of the earth.

It is said that a Divine Incarnation and his apostles work on a deep level of consciousness, where they introduce, as it were, a powerful shaft of spiritual light into the collective mind of humanity; that is the very purpose of their appearance on earth, the meaning of their birth, their sadhana, and their teaching. Through their activity in human form they awaken, so to speak, the ‘cosmic  Kundalini,’ charging that state of existence called mankind with a spiritual power that will for centuries manifest itself more and more fruitfully in the world and, to a greater or lesser degree, in every individual. Swami Shivananda, one of Swamiji’s great brother disciples, would say years later: “Swami Vivekananda once said: ‘In this age the Brahma-kundalini-the Mother who is responsible for the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe has been awakened by the fervent prayers of Sri Ramakrishna. That is why we see symptoms of a great spiritual upsurge everywhere. We need have no worry this time.”

Could it not be said that Swamiji carried that tremendous power to the Western world and infused with it the deep levels of Western culture? He himself once spoke specifically of his Western work, his words recalled by another of his great brothers, Swami Saradananda: “After Swamiji returned from the West his health completely broke down. He used to say, ‘Whatever I had, I have left in that country (the West). During the lectures a power used to emanate from this body and would infuse the audience.” The thought current of the country underwent a change. That was no easy matter…I had heard that Budo Baba (Swami Satchidananda) begged Swamiji to grant him Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Swamiji said, “If I put on the loin cloth and become absorbed in spiritual practice without thinking of ways and means of maintenance, then perhaps the power to grant Nirvikalpa Samadhi may come. It has become exhausted, or lost, by giving lectures in America.”

Did not this influx of radiant power into the Western world, which is bound sooner or later to set the whole culture aglow, constitute the real significance of Swamiji’s work in England as well as in America? Yet this is but a poor attempt to understand what Swamiji did in the West. Who can really assess his accomplishment? “If there were another Vivekananda,” he was heard to say at the close of his life, “he would have understood what Vivekananda has done! And yet how many Vivekanandas shall be born in time!!”

And of his last days Swami Saradananda would write to a brother disciple, “Sometimes he would say ‘Death has come to my bedside, I have been through enough of work and play, let the world realize what contribution I have made, it will take quite a long time to understand that.’”

The coming centuries will indeed be the only other true assessor of his contribution; the rest is inference and speculation. There is, however, one thing we can say even now, and this is that throughout his mission, East and West, he gave himself heart and soul to his Master’s work, awakening everywhere man’s spiritual consciousness, setting in motion a spiritual tide that no power can stem. “Before this flood,” he prophesied, “everybody will be swept off.[5]

We raise a valid query here: Should we seek for the impact of Swamiji’s mass-distribution of spiritual power only in the spiritual development of humanity? Historians, as yet, do not recognize the contribution of spiritual power in the overall development of mankind. We have reasons to believe that every significant development in any field of human endeavor, be it the Arts, the Sciences, the Economics, the Social restructuring, ultimately springs from a spiritual impetus, unleashed by a Prophet. He that ‘hath eyes to see’, will indeed see the veracity of our claim.

We wish to present, as a case in point, the contribution of Swami Vivekananda in the paradigm altering ideas of noted physicist Albert Einstein.

It is today commonly acknowledged that Einstein presented a very original idea regarding space, time and the relationship between matter and energy (commonly known as Special Theory of Relativity) on 26th September 1905 in a paper titled ‘On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies’, which spawned whole new fields of science and technology. The concepts that Einstein developed in that paper were utterly unconventional. They arose from beyond the accepted ideas of physicists of that age. His ideas were a total break from the past. It is incredible that he was able to give solid credence to such unconventional ideas among the academic circles, making the doyens of Physics accept them as valid. It was just a couple of years before this ground-breaking presentation by Einstein that Nobel Prize winning Physicist A A Michelson said in the Ryerson Physical Laboratory, University of Chicago: “While it is never safe to affirm that the future of Physical Science has no marvels in store even more astonishing than those of the past, it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of these principles to all the phenomena which come under our notice. It is here that the science of measurement shows its importance – where quantitative work is more to be desired than qualitative work. An eminent physicist remarked that the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” So, during a period when Physics had sort of tied up all its loose ends, Einstein proposed a couple of ideas that exploded the smug complacence that prevailed among the scientific avant-garde. It is extremely interesting to study the channels of idea-flow that led to this amazing presentation by Einstein.

Swami Vivekananda had met the famous scientist Nikola Tesla in America. In a letter written to his British disciple E T Sturdy, Swamiji writes[6]: “Things are growing nobly in America. As there was no hocus-pocus from the beginning, the Vedanta is drawing the attention of the highest classes in American society. Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress, has been playing ‘Iziel’ here. It is a sort of Frenchified life of Buddha, where a courtesan ‘Iziel’ wants to seduce the Buddha, under the banyan – and the Buddha preaches to her the vanity of the world, whilst she is sitting all the time in Buddha’s lap. However, all is well that ends well – the courtesan fails. Madame Bernhardt acts the courtesan. I went to see the Buddha business – and Madame spying me in the audience wanted to have an interview with me. A swell family of my acquaintance arranged the affair. There were besides Madame M. Morrel, the celebrated singer, also the great electrician Tesla. Madame is a very scholarly lady and has studied up the metaphysics a good deal. M. Morrel was being interested, but Mr. Tesla was charmed to hear about the Vedantic Prana and Akasha and the Kalpas, which according to him are the only theories modern science can entertain. Now both Akasha and Prana again are produced from the cosmic Mahat, the Universal Mind, the Brahma or Ishvara. Mr Tesla thinks he can demonstrate mathematically that force and matter are reducible to potential energy. I am to go and see him next week, to get this new mathematical demonstration.

Swami Vivekananda translated some verses from Sanskrit to Nikola Tesla at this party in New York on the 13th February 1896. The verses said, in essence, that matter and energy, though apparently different, were actually the same in their fundamental nature. Physics of that time did not understand this idea. Newtonian physics held matter and energy to be fundamentally different. Swamiji then asked Tesla if he could show mathematically that what we see as matter can be reduced to potential energy. Tesla was able to grasp the implications of this amazing concept and promised to demonstrate it mathematically. He must have worked on it, but Tesla was primarily an Engineer. Hence his other projects must have diverted him from prioritizing this theoretical work. Tesla however shared that insight with his close friend Mileva Maric. Mileva was Einstein’s first wife. She collaborated with Einstein in his 1905 paper[7], and thus, through Mileva, Einstein put that amazing concept into the most famous equation E = mc2 that ever hit the fan. This equation essentially means that what we see as mass is only energy. John Dobson, an acclaimed physicist, associated closely with Sister Gargi explains this in an article[8] and adds, “That’s the information that I conveyed to Gargi (Marie Louise Burke), first by word of mouth, and then in writing, shortly before she died.

It has been our endeavor, through the ‘Topical Musings’ of the past eleven months to try and trace the development of significant ideas from the message of Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother Sri Sharada Devi and Swami Vivekananda. When Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother and Swamiji themselves did not want their name emblazoned, why should we even attempt this exercise? It would be wrong to conclude that they did not want their names popularized at all. They did not want cheap popularity. But they do wish to be known among the right audience, appreciated by the right people. We are reminded of an incident of great significance in this connection. Swami Akhandananda was the President of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission. He used to reside in a non-descript village called Sargacchi. One day when he was sleeping, Sri Ramakrishna literally shook him up from his sleep and shouted at him, “Hey, do the people know that I have come?” Just look at the concern Sri Ramakrishna has about the right people becoming aware of his incarnating on Earth!

The ‘Topical Musings’ is but a poor attempt to understand what Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother and Swamiji did for the world. Who can really assess their accomplishment? But then again, “let the world realize what contribution we have made, it will take quite a long time to understand that.” For, the ‘Voice without a form’ continues to speak to, exhort and guide us. Shall we not recognize it?

*************


[1] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-5: Epistles: Letter written to Alasinga Perumal from U.S.A. on 12th January, 1895

[2] Anthony de Mello: Song of the bird

[3] Anthony de Mello: Prayer of the frog: Part-1

[4] Talks with Swami Vivekananda: Pg: 465

[5] Swami Vivekananda in the West: New discoveries: Part-IV: Marie Louise Burke: Pg: 519-521

[6] Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda: Vol-5: Epistles: To E T Sturdy on 13th February, 1896.

[7] Albert Einstein (1905) ‘Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper’, Annalen der Physik 17: 891

[8] http://www.sidewalkastronomers.us/id334.html: Vivekananda & the Einsteins

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