Today marks the 157th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. Vivekananda was only 29 when he gave his address at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. As he put it in his lecture, “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 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. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”
A staunch critic of Western imperialism, he railed against American Christian missionaries who traveled to India to “convert the heathens”: he remarked acerbically in one speech he gave while in America, “You train and educate and clothe and pay men to do what? — to come over to my country and curse and abuse all my forefathers, my religion, my everything. They walk near a temple and say, ‘You idolaters, you will go to hell.’ But the Hindu is mild; he smiles and passes on, saying, ‘Let the fools talk.’ And then you who train men to abuse and criticize, if I just touch you with the least bit of criticism, but with the kindest purpose, you shrink and cry: ‘Do not touch us! We are Americans; we criticize, curse, and abuse all the heathens of the world, but do not touch us, we are sensitive plants.” Like Gandhi and the vast majority of Indian people, Vivekananda recognizes that Christianity of the West was a bankrupt enterprise, deployed in the justification of slavery and empire.
Well versed in Western philosophy, logic, and science, and the greatest disciple of his master, Sri Ramakrishna, he sought to bring to the Western world the knowledge of the Vedas, the ancient learning of India. Though largely uncredited for his contributions, he, in fact, developed a new science of the mind. It was in America that he composed his major work, Raja Yoga. His role in the founding of modern psychology has been relatively unacknowledged. He had a profound influence on William James, who was one of W.E.B Du Bois’ professors at Harvard University. James met him in 1894 and again in 1896 when Vivekananda gave a lecture at Harvard, on the religions of India and comparative religions. Many of of James’s colleagues at Harvard (and Du Bois himself who drew on Hindu philosophy constantly in his own work) and the wider community of Cambridge, MA were drawn to the truth of Vivekananda’s teachings about religion, science, and the freedom of the soul. One sees the influence of Vivekananda in James’s 1902 work The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, particularly in the connections between religion and neurology, the reality of the unseen, and the fundamental unity of the self and the universe.