Swami Vivekananda – First visit to America

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First visit to America

Pre-Parliament Period

In Chicago, the other day, a funny thing happened. The Raja of Kapurthala was here, and he was being lionised by some portion of Chicago society. I once met the Raja in the Fair grounds, but he was too big to speak with a poor Fakir. There was an eccentric Mahratta Brahmin selling nail-made pictures in the Fair, dressed in a dhoti. This fellow told the reporters all sorts of things against the Raja–, that he was a man of low caste, that those Rajas were nothing but slaves, and that they generally led immoral lives, etc., etc. And these truthful (?) editors, for which America is famous, wanted to give to the boy’s stories some weight; and so the next day they wrote huge columns in their papers about the description of a man of wisdom from India, meaning me–extolling me to the skies, and putting all sorts of words in my mouth, which I never even dreamt of, and ascribing to me all those remarks made by the Mahratta Brahmin about the Raja of Kapurthala. And it was such a good brushing that Chicago society gave up the Raja in hot haste. . . . These newspaper editors made capital out of me to give my countryman a brushing.
(Letter to Alasinga Perumal – August 20, 1893)

The Swami Took Ganges Water with Him to the West…

Vivekananda writes in Memoirs of European Travel part 1….
The Gita and the sacred waters of the Ganga constitute the Hinduism of the Hindus. Last time I went to the West, I also took a little of it with me, fearing it might be needed, and whenever opportunities occurred I used to drink a few drops of it. And every time I drank, in the midst of the stream of humanity, amid that bustle of civilisation, that hurry of frenzied footsteps of millions of men and women in the West, the mind at once became calm and still, as it were. That stream of men, that intense activity of the West, that clash and competition at every step, those seats of luxury and celestial opulence — Paris, London, New York, Berlin, Rome — all would disappear and I used to hear that wonderful sound of “Hara, Hara”, to see that lonely forest on the sides of the Himalayas, and feel the murmuring heavenly river coursing through the heart and brain and every artery of the body and thundering forth, “Hara, Hara, Hara!”

On meeting Ingersoll
Referring to Robert Ingersol, the Swami said …

In America there was a great agnostic, a very noble man, a very good man, and a very fine speaker. He lectured on religion, which he said was of no use; why bother our heads about other worlds? He employed this simile; we have an orange here, and we want to squeeze all the juice out of it. I met him once and said, “I agree with you entirely. I have some fruit, and I too want to squeeze out the juice. Our difference lies in the choice of the fruit. You want an orange, and I prefer a mango. You think it is enough to live here and eat and drink and have a little scientific knowledge; but you have no right to say that that will suit all tastes. Such a conception is nothing to me. If I had only to learn how an apple falls to the ground, or how an electric current shakes my nerves, I would commit suicide. I want to understand the heart of things, the very kernel itself. Your study is the manifestation of life, mine is the life itself. My philosophy says you must know that and drive out from your mind all thoughts of heaven and hell and all other superstitions, even though they exist in the same sense that this world exists. I must know the heart of this life, its very essence, what it is, not only how it works and what are its manifestations. I want the why of everything. I leave the how to children. As one of your countrymen said, ‘While I am smoking a cigarette, if I were to write a book, it would be the science of the cigarette.’ It is good and great to be scientific, God bless them in their search; but when a man says that is all, he is talking foolishly, not caring to know the raison d’être of life, never studying existence itself. I may argue that all your knowledge is nonsense, without a basis. You are studying the manifestations of life, and when I ask you what life is, you say you do not know. You are welcome to your study, but leave me to mine.” (CW, 2:186-7)

On a lady fanatic in one of his classes

There are fanatics of various kinds. Some people are wine fanatics and cigar fanatics. Some think that if men gave up smoking cigars, the world would arrive at the millennium. Women are generally amongst these fanatics. There was a young lady here one day, in this class. She was one of a number of ladies in Chicago who have built a house where they take in the working people and give them music and gymnastics. One day this young lady was talking about the evils of the world and said she knew the remedy. I asked, “How do you know?” and she answered, “Have you seen Hull House?” In her opinion, this Hull House is the one panacea for all the evils that flesh is heir to. This will grow upon her. I am sorry for her. There are some fanatics in India who think that if a woman could marry again when her husband died, it would cure all evil. This is fanaticism.
When I was a boy I thought that fanaticism was a great element in work, but now, as I grow older, I find out that it is not.

Her husband was a drunkard
(Probable time 1893-1896)

I remember a woman whose husband was a great drunkard, and she complained to me of his becoming so. I replied, “Madam, if there were twenty millions of wives like yourself, all husbands would become drunkards.” I am convinced that a large number of drunkards are manufactured by their wives. My business is to tell the truth and not to flatter anyone. These unruly women from whose minds the words bear and forbear are gone for ever, and whose false ideas of independence lead them to think that men should be at their feet, and who begin to howl as soon as men dare to say anything to them which they do not like — such women are becoming the bane of the world, and it is a wonder that they do not drive half the men in it to commit suicide.

A book from a fanatic
(Probable time 1893-1896)

I once had a book sent me, which said I must believe everything told in it. It said there was no soul, but that there were gods and goddesses in heaven, and a thread of light going from each of our heads to heaven! How did the writer know all these things? She had been inspired, and wanted me to believe it too; and because I refused, she said, “You must be a very bad man; there is no hope for you!” This is fanaticism.

To Yogananda
Probable time: 1893-1897

Swamiji said to Yogananda. “Well Yogin, do you know what I saw in the West? All over the world I was seeing only the play of the same great shakti. Our forefathers manifested that power in religion and philosophy, and the West is manifesting the same energy in the modern age through dynamic activity. Truly, throughout the whole universe there are only different expressions of that same maha-shakti.”

In the West

When I first came to America , they ill-treated me if I had not trousers on. Next I was forced to wear cuffs and collars, else they would not touch me etc., etc. They thought me awfully funny if I did not eat what they offered etc., etc. . .

1893

In my first speech in this country, in Chicago, I addressed that audience as ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’, and you know that they all rose to their feet. You may wonder what made them do this, you may wonder if I had some strange power. Let me tell you that I did have a power and this is it — never once in my life did I allow myself to have even one sexual thought. I trained my mind, my thinking, and the powers that man usually uses along that line I put into a higher channel, and it developed a force so strong that nothing could resist it.
(From Mrs. George Roorbach’s reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda at Camp Taylor, California, in May 1900)

When I came to this country and was going through the Chicago Fair, a man from behind pulled at my turban. I looked Backand saw that he was a very gentlemanly-looking man, neatly dressed. I spoke to him; and when he found that I knew English, he became very much abashed. On another occasion in the same Fair another man gave me a push. When I asked him the reason, he also was ashamed and stammered out an apology saying, “Why do you dress that way?” The sympathies of these men were limited within the range of their own language and their own fashion of dress. Much of the oppression of powerful nations on weaker ones is caused by this prejudice. It dries up their fellow-feeling for fellow men. That very man who asked me why I did not dress as he did and wanted to ill-treat me because of my dress may have been a very good man, a good father, and a good citizen; but the kindliness of his nature died out as soon as he saw a man in a different dress. Strangers are exploited in all countries, because they do not know how to defend themselves; thus they carry home false impressions of the peoples they have seen. Sailors, soldiers, and traders behave in foreign lands in very queer ways, although they would not dream of doing so in their own country; perhaps this is why the Chinese call Europeans and Americans “foreign devils”. They could not have done this if they had met the good, the kindly sides of Western life.
West 1895-97

Is it so easy to be Janaka? To sit on a throne absolutely unattached? Caring nothing for wealth or fame, for wife or child ? One after another in the west has told me that he had reached this. But I could only say—’such great men are not born in India !

It was said of me in America that I was a man who came out of a land that had been dead and buried for five thousand years, and talked of renunciation.

“I had to have separate classes for the two castes. For the high caste people — Lady This and Lady That, Honourable This and Honourable That — I had classes in the morning; for the low caste people, who came pell-mell, I had classes in the evening.”
(From John Henry Wright’s March 27, 1896 letter to Mary Tappan Wright, quoting Swami Vivekananda on his classes in England.)

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