To study the origin of the Vedanta movement in America is
to study Swami Vivekananda and his travels across the
US. We like to put the spotlight on him since his message
about self-effort, strength, and freedom of the soul is especially
favored by the Western mind. But who was he? What was the
magic in his message that made him so popular in America and
his homeland of India? We shall only attempt a brief sketch
or Narendra as he was called then, was born on January 12,
1863. Bright and full of energy, his mother found him extremely
restless and hard to control. "I prayed to God for a
son, but he sent me one of his demons," she would sometimes
say in frustration. But he was not a bad boy. He had an early
fascination for the wandering monks that are so common in
India and would practice meditation for fun.
As he grew older, Narendra excelled at his studies and amazed his teachers.
At college he mastered Western philosophy and logic and seriously
questioned the orthodox beliefs of Hinduism. Reason, he felt,
was the surest guide in life. Yet reason didn't satisfy the
yearnings of his soul. About this time, he met a holy man
by the name of Sri
Ramakrishna. The holy man was in many ways from quite
a different background than Narendra, yet Narendra was drawn
to him. On the one hand, Ramakrishna seemed to be a madman
and a monomaniac, yet, the holy man radiated a holy atmosphere
unlike anything he had experienced elsewhere. The more Narendra
saw him, the more he saw an extraordinary holiness and a most
As their relationship grew, Narendra was fired by the ideals of renunciation,
concept that the only
important thing in life was to realize God. After Ramakrishna
died, Narendra took the vows of a monk and became Swami
Vivekananda. For two years he wandered throughout India growing
spiritually and experiencing many hardships. He saw the great
poverty of India and pondered deeply the role of religion
and the suffering of the masses. He impressed great kings
with his wisdom, yet learned wisdom during his moments of
pride from the lowly of society.
His wanderings helped to develop an understanding of the real meaning of religion.
As he said to two of his brother disciples that he happened
to see at a train station,
I have traveled all over India. But alas, it was agony to me, my brothers,
to see with my own eyes the terrible poverty and misery of
the masses, and I could not restrain my tears. It is now my
firm conviction that it is futile to preach religion amongst
them without first trying to remove their poverty and their
suffering. It is for this reason - to find more means for
the salvation of the poor in India - that I am now going to
We should understand that at this time in India, such talk was almost heresy.
Society said a monk should busy himself with meditation and
other spiritual practices, not doing social service.
True to his word, Vivekananda traveled to America to speak at a conference
in Chicago that he had heard about called The World's Parliament
of Religions. When he arrived, he discovered that not only
had he come too early, but that he lacked proper papers to
be a delegate. The authorities wouldn't recognize him.
But Providence has its ways. He came to meet a Professor J.H. Wright, of the
Greek Department at Harvard University. They talked for hours.
The professor was so impressed that he insisted that his new
friend should be the representative of Hinduism at the Parliament.
On hearing that the Swami lacked proper credentials, he replied,
"To ask you, Swami, for your credentials, is like asking
the sun to state its right to shine." The professor wrote
a letter to a friend in charge of selecting the delegates
saying, "Here is a man who is more learned than all our
learned professors put together."
On September 11, 1893, Swami Vivekananda attended the Parliament as a delegate
to speak. Nervous at first, he passed on his chance to speak.
Finally, he spoke, in words that became famous throughout
Sisters and brothers of America.
It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response
to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I
thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in
the world. I thank you in the name of the mother of religions,
and I thank you in the name of the millions and millions of
Hindu people of all classes and sects I am proud to belong
to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and
universal acceptance I am proud to belong to a religion which
has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions
and all nations on earth.
Swami Vivekananda was thus introduced to the world at the Parliament. People
flocked to hear him, although certain Christian missionaries
were furious. How could they collect money for converting
the heathens in India when such a dynamic speaker existed?
The New York Herald called him "Undoubtedly the greatest
figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him,
we feel foolish to send missionaries to this learned nation."
To see a poster of Swami Vivekananada
from the Parliament of Religions, click here.
After the Parliament, the Swami traveled throughout the United States and
England lecturing and giving the Western world his best teachings
on Vedanta, teachings that seemed customized for the particular
needs of the western mind.
His first book on the yoga of meditation was assembled and
published as Raja
Yoga. Later came out a collection of his talks on the
intellectually demanding approach Jnana
Yoga, and finally, talks on the yoga approaches that suit
most people Karma
and Bhakti Yoga. A series of private talks to his most
serious students at Thousand Islands Park in New York was
later published as Inspired
After four years, Vivekananda finally returned to India for a hero's welcome.
Here he was able to put many of his ideas in practice such
as service to the poor, education, hospitals, and relief in
times of natural disaster. A major day came in 1899 when the
permanent headquarters of his brother monks, called the Ramakrishna
Order of India, was consecrated. He said to his disciples,
The history of the world is the history of a few men who had
faith in themselves. That faith calls out the divinity within.
You fail only when you do not strive sufficiently to manifest
infinite power. As soon as a man loses faith in himself, death
comes. Believe first in yourselves, and then in God. A handful
of strong men will move the world. It is the salvation of
others that you must seek; and even if you have to go to hell
in working for others, that is worth more than to gain heaven
by seeking your own salvation.
Later in 1899, the swami returned to America. Although his body was weak from
so much lecturing and traveling, he continued to talk and
give classes. In one instance, as described by a student,
An old church lady asked him why he never spoke of sin. There came a look
of surprise on the Swami's face. "But madam,"
he said, "blessed are my sins. Through
sin I have learned virtue. It is my sins as much as my virtues
, that have made me what I am today. And now I am the preacher
of virtue. Why do you dwell on the weak side of man's nature?
Don't you know that the greatest blackguard often has some
virtue that is wanting in the saint? There is only one power,
and that power manifests itself both as good and as evil.
God and the devil are the same river with the water flowing
in opposite directions."
The lady was horrified, but others understood. And then the Swami began to
speak of the divinity that resides in everyone; how the soul
is perfect, eternal, and immortal; the Atman , the indwelling
God, resides in every being.
In December, Vivekananda journeyed to Los Angeles, California where
he continued speaking, often to large audiences. The Swami,
as always, gave his message straight and without compromise.
In a lecture called "Hints on Practical Spirituality,"
"We should look upon each other in the most charitable
light. It is not so easy to be good. You are good because
you cannot help it. Another is bad because he cannot help
it. If you were in his position, who knows what you would
have been? The woman in the street or the thief in the jail
is the Christ that is being sacrificed that you may be a good
person. Such is the law of balance. All the thieves and the
murderers, all the unjust, the weakest, the wickedest, the
devils, they are all my Christ. That is my doctrine. I cannot
help it. My salutation goes to the feet of the good , the
saintly, and to the feet of the wicked and the devilish. They
are all my teachers . As I see more of the world, see more
of men and women, this conviction grows stronger. Whom shall
I blame? Whom shall I praise? Both sides of the shield must
On Christmas day, the Swami lectured on "Christ's Message to the World."
As Josephine MacLeod would later recount,
Perhaps the most outstanding lecture I heard was his talk on "Jesus of
Nazareth," when he seemed to radiate a white light from
head to foot, so lost was he in the wonder and power of Christ.
I was so impressed with his obvious halo that I did not speak
to him on the way back for fear of interrupting, as I thought,
the great thoughts that were still in his mind. Suddenly he
said to me, "I know how it is done." I said, "How
what is done?" "How they make Mulligatawny soup!
They put a bay leaf in it."
In San Francisco, Swami Vivekananda was again busy as a public speaker, again
speaking to large crowds while holding smaller classes for
the more interested. It was a whirlwind schedule that tired
him greatly but helped establish a solid foundation for Vedanta
in America. Some of the lectures survive today in printed
form. We have included here several of his talks, including
the Messenger, and Is Vedanta the Future Religion? (a
talk on the future of Vedanta Philosophy in America).
Of special importance to the West was his stress on what we call self-esteem.
It is an important need in our daily lives, and in spiritual
life. He said in his lecture Practical Vedanta,
"The ideal of faith in ourselves is of the greatest help to us. If faith
in ourselves had been more extensively taught and practised,
I am sure a very large portion of the evils and miseries that
we have would have vanished.
Throughout the history of mankind, if any motive power has been more potent
than another in the lives of all great men and women, it is
that of faith in themselves. Born with the consciousness that
they were to be great, they became great.
Let a man go down as low as possible; there must come a time
when out of sheer desperation he will take an upward curve
and will learn to have faith in himself. But it is better
for us that we should know it from the very first.
Why should we have all these bitter experiences in order to gain faith in
ourselves? We can see that all the difference between man
and man is owing to the existence of non-existence of faith
in himself. Faith in ourselves will do everything. I have
experienced it in my own life, and am still doing so; and
as I grow older that faith is becoming stronger and stronger.
He is an atheist who does not believe in himself. The old religion said that
he was an atheist who did not believe in God. The new religion
says that he is the atheist who does not believe in himself.
But it is not selfish faith, because the Vedanta, again, is
the doctrine of oneness. It means faith in all, because you
Love for yourselves means love for all, love for animals, love for everything,
for you are all one. It is the great faith which will make
the world better."
Swami Vivekananda was to live for two more years, tirelessly championing the
cause of a philosophy that saw God whose cathedral was the
human body. He died at the age of 39. Words that he uttered
an another time come to mind to explain death at such an early
It may be that I shall find it good to get outside
my body -- to cast it off like a well-worn garment. But I
shall not cease to work. I shall inspire men everywhere, until
the world shall come to know that it is one with God.
This essay was compiled from two sources, A Short Life of
Swami Vivekananda, by Swami Tejasananda, and The Life of Swami
Vivekananda by his Eastern and Western Disciples. Both books
are available through Vedanta Press.
For a complete collection of pictures of Swami Vivekananda,
visit the Vedanta
Society Website -Vivekananda photos
for the Vedanta Society Of Southern California Website