Saturday, 4 May 2013

Swami Vivekananda - A Full Resurgence – The Value of Values

Swami Vivekananda cast India’s cultural heritage into international spotlight when he began his speech at the Parliament of World Religions with the phrase, “My sisters and brothers of America.”  As commonplace as it seems to Indians to begin a talk with “bhaio aur beno,” the idea of referring to an auditorium full of strangers as family was, for many Americans, surprising and their first glimpse of traditional Indian culture.  Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is one of the most basic tenets of Indian spiritual and cultural heritage.  The world is a family.  This message is one that is needed as critically today, perhaps even more critically, as when he spoke in Chicago 120 years ago.  Today, like never before, we are faced with a critical divide between those who have and those who have-not, those who are growing plumper each year and those who are helplessly watching their children succumb to the perils of malnutrition, those with summer homes, winter homes and weekend homes, and those who cower in doorways to escape the beating rain and sleet.   We produce enough food to feed 10 billion people a day, yet tens of thousands of children die each day of starvation while others feast themselves to diabetes and heart disease.  Now, as never before, the world needs this message that we are all family.  No one in a family would even conceive of grabbing all the chapatis laid out for dinner. Instinctively we understand that every family member is entitled to his/her fair share.  Sacrifice for each other’s wellbeing comes naturally.  

Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam
            Swami Vivekananda’s reference to the people of America as his “sisters and brothers” was not merely profound at the time; rather it is a call that we must hear today.  But, of course, not only are the Americans our sisters and brothers.  Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam has no discrimination, does not play favorites and has no hierarchy.  Can we extend the feeling of family to the impoverished and malnourished of India, Africa, Asia and the rest of the world? Can we extend the arms of our family to the suicidal farmers killing themselves over desiccated fields and yieldless harvests? Can we truly feel the same Oneness, the same sense of family, for those of different religions, different countries, different castes and different colors?
            Swami Vivekananda emphasized that the reason for India’s downfall (as he saw it) lay in India’s neglect of the masses.  No family can be truly successful on all levels if its members are hungry, or cold, or homeless or ailing without means for treatment.  If India is going to achieve a full resurgence of greatness and prosperity on all fronts, it cannot do so while a huge percentage of its own population lives without toilets, running water, basic education and primary health care.
Resurgent India is not only about a financial resurgence; it not only refers to a renewal of India’s place as a leader of the developing and developed world.  Rather, if India is going to be reborn into Her true state of glory, it requires a rekindling of Her fundamental and essential values and tenets.  Resurgent India requires not just that we connect on facebook and twitter, not just that we count our global presence in the number of "friends" or "followers" we have, but that we truly and deeply take the world into our heart.   Can their pain be our pain? Can their hunger be our hunger? Can their anguish be our anguish? Can we truly, selflessly, lovingly make choices and sacrifices for them as we would for our own family members? Only when the values, ethics and sanskaras of Bharitya sanskriti are re-infused with their cultural significance can India truly see a resurgence.

Women as Divine

Additionally, it is important to note that Swami Vivekananda did not say “My brothers and sisters of America.” Rather he said, “My sisters and brothers of America.” The distinction is minor and yet profound, particularly as India faces a time of singular darkness and despair regarding women’s rights and protection.  This emphasis, actually, on the feminine is an inherent part of traditional Indian culture.  Our mantras chant, “Twameva Mata, Cha Pita Twameva….” First mother, then father.  Manu declared and our scriptures remind us that “Where women are adored, there the Gods are pleased.”       So neither is this tenet of women’s empowerment, women’s rights and women’s significance new today, nor was it new when Swami Vivekananda based his remarks according to this cultural niyam. So, women’s rights are not something that need to be instituted in India, but rather something that has to be re-instituted. That respect, reverence and love for women not as objects of desire but as manifestations of the Divine Feminine is part and parcel of India’s cultural and spiritual heritage.  Without it, as we are seeing in the streets of India today, no resurgence will be successful.

India as Tirth
A story is told of Swami Vivekananda’s trip to America and UK, spanning approximately four years from 1893 – 1897. As he was readying to depart from London for India, one of his British friends asked him, Swamiji how do you like your motherland now after four years’ experience of the luxurious, glorious, powerful West?” Swamiji replied: “India I loved before I came away. Now the very dust of India has become holy to me, the very air is now to me holy; India is now the holy land, the place of pilgrimage, the Tirtha!”  Today, there is a clamouring among most Indians to go abroad – to travel, to study, to work and to live.  I cannot tell you the number of times someone -- having acquired immeasurable punya over lifetimes leading to a birth on the banks of Ganga -- asks me: “Please aap mere liye Amreeka mein kooch kara dijiye, meri naukri lagwa dijiye. Kooch bhi karo, muje Amreeka bhijwa do bus.”  The request always brings tears to my eyes and yet is indicative of much of what needs to “resurge” in India.
There has been, over the last several decades, a shift of focus and a shift in our values. To Swami Vivekananda, sure the roads, the infrastructure and other aspects of comfort, convenience, efficiency and even luxury were better and more available in the West, just as they are today. However, to him, those were not the important aspects of life, nor were they what determined his choice of country in which to live.  Hence he longed to return to Mother India where he could bathe in Her culture, Her people, Her very soil, in the wind that blows across Her land.  There is a magic here in India, a divine magic that makes even squalor sacred. That does not, of course, condone squalor but it is simply to say that the feeling of sacredness is pervasive – in the huts and in the mandirs. 
There are many reasons for this of course, with the most important being India’s inherent holiness. However, I believe that the divinity of Her very soil is enhanced by a culture in which spirituality, sanskaras and connection to God are the most important aspects of life.  That is the Bharatiya Sanskriti we speak about. However, today the focus seems to be much more on acquiring and attaining wealth, prestige, status and possessions.
When I first came to India one of the most remarkable aspects to me of the culture and the country was the peace on people's faces -- the rich, the poor, the old, the young, the homeless, the hungry, the educated and the illiterate. It was as though one's lot in life was simply part of the "package deal" of human birth. It had very little connection to one's sense of self or self-worth.  Even those who lived far below western standards of abject poverty were eager to share. "Please come home for dinner," I heard countless times from people who could not even afford to feed their own families let alone an extra mouth.  In the nearly two decades I’ve lived here, much has changed. Perhaps bombarded by Western and Westernized serials, movies, fashion magazines and cultural indoctrination, the values and focus in India seem to have shifted.  The "new India" has started judging its self worth much like the West does -- by the balance in their bank account, the number of shopping bags on their arms, the brand of sunglasses upon their faces and the size of their waists.  There is a feverish clamoring for more and more, better and better, newer and newer. India has become a country where there are nearly twice as many mobile phones as toilets.
How many Indians today are just as eager to return home to India after a few years abroad? If India is going to be resurgent we have to cultivate that same level of discrimination that Swamiji had – sure he was able to recognize the comfort and convenience of the West, and yet he was able to recognize that there is something much more valuable than that.  Hence he longed to return home to the “Tirth” of India.
A Resurgent India needs a return to the values espoused by Swami Vivekananda.  His call for greatness is a greatness deeper than the distance our missiles can travel or the value of our GNP.  It is a greatness that penetrates the core of each Indian, that makes him/her grounded, anchored, centered and rooted in an unbreakable, unshakeable connection to the Divine, to the country, to Her soil and to each other.

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati
Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh


  1. A wonderful article Sadhvi ji.

    The importance of women in indian culture cannot be emphasized enough. You are right in saying that "Gods reside where women are worshiped". Indian culture and its innumerable gods (which most people cannot fathom why) emanates from a single thought "Respect and love for all". We have the tree god, because trees provide us with food, shade and when they are old, with energy (one of Manu's shlokas). We have Ganga maa, because the water from the ganga was a source of not only drinking, but for trade commerce and hence survival (The indus valley). We have fire god, because fire can both make and destroy. We call our "dharti" maa, because it gives us food, and is fertile like a mother. I could go on. But what I am trying to say here is, somewhere in this tussle between our real and pseudo identities, we forgot what we really are. Indian culture was always one of tolerance and free from judgements, but somewhere in this mad race of making money, we got lost. I could probably attribute this to years of being ruled, so much so that we kept loosing our values and the only thing that remained ingrained was the need to be so financially strong that no one can rule over us again. You are right in saying that the poor will probably invite you in for a meal, but I would add here that the wealthy would probably think twice. It is not a wonder that "Atithi devo bhava" is now nothing more than a tag line for Indian Tourism.

    I would like to draw your attention to another shloka from our upnishads:

    "Om Asato Maa Sad-Gamaya |
    Tamaso Maa Jyotir-Gamaya |
    Mrtyor-Maa Amrtam Gamaya |
    Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||

    Om Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah
    Sarve Santu Nir-Aamayaah |
    Sarve Bhadraanni Pashyantu
    Maa Kashcid-Duhkha-Bhaag-Bhavet |
    Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||"

    Yato yatah samihase tato no abhayam kuru.
    Shan nah kuru prajabhyam nah pashubhaya (Yajur veda)

    "Always protect us from fear wherever it may come. Give us happiness through people and may the people always be happy as well. May the people not cause fear among each other and may we not fear animals either. Through Your mercy may we never receive any form of fear from anyone, so that we can live happily without fear and worship You"

    The core of our culture is in the happiness of all...

    I am in the US and we go to Hare Krishan Mandir here, I see hundreds of children learning sanskrit, learning hindi, learning to read the Gita, sitting in Bhagvad gita recitals, learning about the Indian culture. My own 2 year old can very clearly say "Om shanti", his favorite song is "Om jai Jagadish hare" and he loves to do the gayatri Havan. My husband who is an Australian and moved to Australia when he was 10, wears a Janeu and binds by it. You yourself have visited so many Indians outside of India Sadhviji, tell me something, do we have to leave our country, our teerth, to feel close to it? Why is it that I feel that my friends in India have adopted only parts of western culture, which they felt comfortable with. They adopted the concept of nuclear families, but still wanted to keep the indian concept of having the right to their parent's property!? They want a "western" lifestyle but do not realize that in the west, everyone has to clean their own dishes and do their own laundry :)

    In the end, I would just say that if we believe in the power of our Scriptures and the values that our ancestors lived by, there is no end to what we can achieve, "if".

    A footnote: You are a remarkable woman and I love reading your posts :)

  2. What wonderful thoughts, so beautifully written. Often I sit upon my hill and close my eyes. I travel to you, so far away...sitting in this place of my heart...which is India. In those precious moments, I am there with you. <3 A few days ago, sitting praying and asking Mata Shakti what could I do for you and Beloved Swamiji...and I felt so truly worthless in every way. For, from this humble place, I have nothing but my heart. How sad to think that this consumerism, which is so rampant here...and the constant collecting of items....would begin to plague the home of Love and Truth. Dear Mother, Sadhviji, knowing you and Swamiji is a treasure above treasures. India is the richest country in this realm. May Mahadeva always preserve this Home of Truth, India...and also make it possible for me to become useful to you, Beloved Heart.

    Please come home for dinner...Beloved Mother....anytime you have the inclination to do so.

    Hari Om Namah Shivaya <3

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  5. Yato yatah samihase tatonam abhayam kuru.
    Shan-nah kuru: prajaabhyo bhayam nah: pashubaya:

  6. Saadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati-ji: Pranam. You are the second Western Sanyasi I have come across in my life. The first one was Sri Leopld Fischer -- an Austrian. When the 2nd World War ended, he was in "Hitler's Youth". Somehow he reached Indian shores and became a Sanyasi after immense struggle. He served in BHU and DU as a Visiting Professor before settling down in the evening of his life at Syracuse University as Professor of Anthropology. He has written his Autobiography "The Ochre Robe". If you have not read that, you may find it immensely insightful on India. [I mean it would only add to what you already know about India and the Hindu way of life]. I would consider myself blessed if I can meet you in real life. Once the Winter is over I shall come over to Rishikesh and hope to rendezvous with you then for a couple of hours if not for a couple of days. Pranam!