WHEN EAST MET WEST -- IN 1893

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CHICAGO, 1893 — All that sweltering summer along the shores of Lake Michigan, the Great White City teemed with curious characters.  African tribesmen in native dress.  Chiefs from the Sioux and other nations.  Midwestern farmers come to see the World Columbian Exhibition.  Then on September 11,  some 7,000 people met to hear a single man — a swami.

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The swami was “a striking figure,” one newspaper noted.  Six feet tall, with raven-black hair, he wore a red robe and a towering orange turban.  He seemed nervous as he stepped before the World Parliament of Religions.  In the audience were Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, and more.  The swami offered a slight prayer, then began.  

“Sisters and Brothers of America!”  

The audience rose to its feet.  The ovation lasted for two minutes.

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“O, East is East and West is West,” Rudyard Kipling wrote, “and never the twain shall meet.”  But even as Kipling’s poem was quoted, Swami Vivekananda was touring America.  It was the America of Jim Crow, of tent revivals, of battle lines drawn between Protestant and Catholic, Baptist and Unitarian.   But wherever he went — from Redlands, California to Greenacre, Maine — Vivekananda was welcomed.  How did a Hindu monk touch “the better angels of our nature?”

Vivekananda was born in a conquered country.  By 1863, India was under British rule, and young Narendra Datta had to straddle two cultures.  Though fascinated by Hinduism, he also studied at a British school in Calcutta.  There one teacher found him “a genius.”  The young man could memorize whole chapters of Dickens or the Bible, but his true gift was in speaking.  And when he began following the guru Ramakrishna, he soon spoke all over India.

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By the time he was invited to Chicago, Narendra had changed his name to Vivekananda, Sanskrit for “the bliss of discerning wisdom.”  But if East and West were to meet, they needed more than bliss.  In a world divided between colonizer and colonized, in an America divided along many lines, Vivekananda preached unity.

“I want you to keep your own belief,” the swami told audiences in Memphis and Minneapolis, San Francisco and Saginaw.  “I want to make the Methodist a better Methodist; the Presbyterian a better Presbyterian; the Unitarian a better Unitarian. I want to teach you to live the truth, to reveal the light within your own soul.”  Americans, hungry for an end to religious squabbles, listened — and read.  Vivekananda’s first book introduced Americans to the discipline that, though thinned of its religious component, is now known simply as yoga.

The world is the great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves stronger.
— Swami Vivekananda

The warmest welcome came in the chilliest place — Harvard.  Founded by Puritans, still the stodgiest of American universities, Harvard boasted the nation’s most brilliant philosophers.  William James.  George Santayana.  Josiah Royce.  Each bombarded his students with isms — “pluralistic monism, dualistic scientificism, pragmatism. . .”  Surely a Hindu monk, preaching “renunciation and service,” would fall on deaf ears at upper crust Harvard.

Vivekananda came to Harvard at the end of his first American tour.  Before a crowd of 600, he explained the Vedantic philosophy, based on the Rig Veda, the world’s oldest scripture.  The human soul is one with the universe.  There is no separation, no Us vs. Them, no East is East. . . “Due respect and reverence should be paid to all religions, all preachers, and to the deities worshiped in all religions."

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Over the next few years, Vivekananda returned to Harvard again and again.  He spoke in private homes, in huge halls, in classes.  “That man is simply a wonder for oratorical power.,” William James said.  “He is an honor to humanity.”  And James recalled overhearing two students.

“I was really disappointed.”

“Why?”

“Well, we were told that this man was so great, that his ideas were so profound.”

“What makes you say his ideas aren’t profound?”

“Because I understood every word he said!”

Equally impressed, Harvard profs asked Vivekananda to chair their Eastern Philosophy department.  He declined. He had speaking engagements in Europe.

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While in America, Vivekananda befriended inventor Nicola Tesla and convinced John D. Rockefeller to begin sharing his fortune. Vivekananda also founded the Vedanta Society, based in New York.  More than a century later, 14 Vedanta societies throughout the U.S. continue to work with the poor.  And although he never returned to America, this Eastern monk still has something to teach our embattled nation.

“This world must go on, wheel within wheel.  What can we do?  We can make it run smoothly, we can lessen friction, we can grease the wheels, as it were.  By what?  By recognizing variation. . .  We must learn that truth may be expressed in a thousand ways, and each one yet be true.”

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