29 August, 2013

Insensitivity, thy name is Chetan Bhagat. Young India does not want this, does not need this.


(Pic courtesy : rawforbeauty.com via Google)

Just yesterday, I penned a post on my blog about how parentscould do their bit against the Rape Culture in raising children to be moresensitive and empathetic.  

The Chetan Bhagat tweet on Twitter yesterday was a classic example to the contrary.  Mr.Bhagat tweeted yesterday saying “The Rupee is asking, is there no punishment for my rapists ?”. 


(Pic courtesy : firstpost.com via Google)

He later, in his ever inimitable style, went on to say that it had been a harmless tweet and he had just used “rape” as a metaphor.  As simple as that and then, without as much as an apology, he proceeded to delete his tweet.  Simile or metaphor aside, one simply does not joke about something as violating and monstrous as rape. 

This is not about a metaphor or about bad timing.  He was incredibly insensitive and tactless.  The same insensitivity that I’d written about yesterday, that seems to be pervading all sections of society, especially the “educated” populace.  Mr. Bhagat is not from the ‘poor’ section of the society.  He claims to have been “educated” at IIT, which is said to be one of the elite institutions in India.  He claims to be “a prolific author”.  His parents have just two children – not a whole bus load of them.  Yet, he churns out something as crass and thoughtless as his tweet yesterday. 

When I mentioned parental responsibility in helping children grow up to be caring adults and about parents doing their bit in raising their children towards being empathetic members of society, Mr.Bhagat, with his insensitive tweet, has just helped me rest my case. 

The number of rapes that are committed by the rich, the powerful and the educated are just as many (if not more) than those committed by people from the less financially able sections of society.  I guess, more often than not, crimes committed by the rich and the powerful do not come to light or even if they do, they are either swept under the carpet or in many instances, there are the powerful parents helping their children get away with what they’ve done.  There was one such report in The HK Standard today morning.  A high ranking Chineseofficial’s son has been accused of being a part of a gang rape that took placein China.  His parents are sure to pull whatever strings they can, to set him free.   What is to stop this teen from doing something like this all over again, especially when he knows his parents can get him out of any mess that he gets himself into ?  
There was an instance in Bangalore a couple of years back when an official working in the French Consulate was sexually abusing his daughter repeatedly.

In trying to instill sensitivity in children as they grow, what the parental community could possibly succeed in doing is raising a whole generation which is more empathetic.  Currently, rape victims suffer not just the violation that they’ve had to endure at the hands of the rapist.  It goes further.  When they go over to the police stations to register a complaint, are their cases handled with the compassion and understanding that such victims need ?  When they go over to hospitals or doctors for the mandatory Rape Kit to be collected and to be medically examined, are they treated with a certain degree of compassion ?  When the victims need to testify in court against the convicted rapists, even the lawyers and judges do not treat them with sensitivity, in most cases.  I can recall one such court case in France in February this year, when a violinist who had been raped was called in to courtto testify against her rapist and the defence lawyer’s cross examination was so brutal that it droveher to commit suicide.  Was she to blame or was she the one who had been wronged here ?

It is this lack of sensitivity in dealing with the victims too that parents can hope to tackle in the future, by trying to raise children who are taught to be more empathetic.  Some of them could well go on to practice as doctors, lawyers, social workers, policemen or policewomen, lawyers or any such field that requires empathy and sympathy to be a part and parcel of the work culture, the person’s psyche.  That could further spread and trickle down, if need be because every human being is born with a conscience.  Somewhere deep down inside, that conscience is still alive.  In most cases, the inner self just gets submerged in apathy, indifference and a lack of concern.  The conscience just needs to be woken up.  The alarm clock here would be visible understanding, compassion and empathy.   Would this not go a long way in helping ?  Call me a foolish optimist or a sentimental idiot if you want to, but can we not hope that this could actually be a reality of the future ?



28 August, 2013

Don't feed The Rape Culture - Teach children the importance of consent, empathy and respect !!


(Pic courtesy : addictinginfo.org via Google)

Yet another gang rape, yet another spate of protests and furore and now people are busy discussing and arguing whether Mumbai is going the Delhi way.  To begin with, where does this question even come from ?  Is one city safer than the other ?  In India, there have been reports of tourists being gang raped in places like Manali – so then, all of a sudden, does that make Manali more unsafe than Delhi and Bombay put together ?  My question is “does it matter which part of the country it takes place in ?”  The main issue here is the rapes that are still taking place with impunity. 

There will be more protests, people will clamor, there will be demands for chemical castration or even the death penalty.   Are these really the solutions to a problem that is as prevalent and endemic, as widespread as sexual abuse and rape ?  Not quite.  What one really has to ask oneself is “what can be done to educate our children in this regard ?”.  The one irrefutable thing that all of us need to bear in mind is the fact that children are the future.  So, if there is no attempt made to educate the future generations about issues like sexual abuse, rape, being sensitive towards the needs and feelings of others, understanding that a NO means a NO and that a NO does not mean a MAYBE or a YES, what foundations do we hope to build ?  If this does not start at the family level, especially in a country as populous as India, how can we even begin to hope for a safer, more secure country for the future generations to grow up in ?

I’ve noticed this tendency among the children at the school I teach in.  When kids hit their pre-teen years, there is a natural curiosity about the bodies of the opposite sex.  Bodies undergo changes and many of those changes are visible – especially in the case of girls, since girls mature earlier than boys.  Now this has led to a situation at school where the boys think it is perfectly alright to go ahead and tease the girls about their physical attributes.  The girls who are more than aware of the changes taking place in their bodies only retreat further into their shells because I guess no one has ever talked to them about these changes.  No one has actually put it into words and told them that it is a natural part of growing up – for a girl to grow breasts as her body starts releasing hormones during the teen years.  No one has actually spoken to them, I guess, that having a period is a normal part of the growing up process.  More than all these, I guess no one has ever spoken to the boys at school about how girls too have feelings and sentiments and that they ought to be respected.  The boys have to be educated about this.  Just because a girl is growing breasts does not automatically make her a ready target for their catcalls and their wisecracks.  Nor does having a penis make them superior to the girls in any way or give them a right to behave boorishly. 

Whether we like it or not, we live in a society that is evolving by the minute.  The pace of change affects children even more so because they, at this age, have minds that are more gullible than ours.  We are bringing up our kids in a society in which peer pressure has more of a push now than it did when we were children.  What peers say, matters.  What peers think about them, matters to them a great deal.  We are bringing up our kids in times when information is there for the taking.  Newspapers, the internet, magazines or social media websites – are all open fields, waiting for information to be sought and gleaned.

Take movies or TV serials, for instance.   There is no denying the fact that as things stand now, girls and women are still viewed as a conquest of sorts in many movies or serials.  Falling in love or being sexually active are viewed more as a victory or a triumph, a conquest, if you may, rather than something that is born out of consent, mutual affection and desire.  There are books like “Fifty Shades of Grey” where the main protagonist in the book “agrees to take” the female protagonist’s virginity without the two of them “signing an agreement”.   Makes it sound like a favor that the male protagonist is bestowing on the female.  There are scores of youngsters who have ready access to books like these or many of the movies, where male superiority and dominance over females is clearly the underlying theme.

Every single time a child picks up a newspaper or a magazine that asks “what was the women doing out so late at night ?” “Was she drunk ?” “Was she improperly clothed ?” “Did she have a lot of boyfriends ?”  “Was she already sexually active ?” – thought processes are unconsciously being implanted in those susceptible minds.  Their minds are automatically being driven towards associating these notions with the idea that if these conditions were present then it was the woman that was asking for it, that it was the woman that was to blame.  We, as adults, are comprehensive enough to realize that no woman ever asks to be sexually assaulted or raped.  No woman ever asks to be violated.  How about the younger generation ?  Who’s going to teach them to read between the lines here and get the point across that if it has happened, it is not the woman who is the instigator, as the media and people rather conveniently seem to deem and assume.

The Indian society gives boys a lot many more concessions than it does the girls.  Things like sensitivity and empathy are not a “requirement” in a boy’s psyche as per the Indian society of yore, simply because they are males.  Boys need to be educated, they have to be taught about consent, they have to be taught about respecting others’ feelings and sentiments, they have to be educated about the evils of peer pressure.  They have to be taught that there are lines which are not meant to be crossed.  I do know, as my own son grows up, that this is easier said than done.  When those teen hormones are raging through them, it takes very little to drown out the parents’ voices and replace them with those of other teens who are equally testosterone driven.  But that is no excuse for not trying to educate them in the first place.  It is a parental responsibility and one that needs to be taken just as seriously as we take their education and the many other aspects of their lives that we deem important.

Many of the outraged responses to the Mumbai gang rape have been on the lines of “how could parents have raised such monsters ?”.   We should not be viewing this as an isolated incident, should we ? Fact remains that it is not.  It is a culmination of all the inputs, albeit indirect, that society and the media have been shoving into their heads ever since the time they could read or see something and comprehend the same.  It is a sum total, it is a result of never having been taught to respect consent.

We, as parents, have a parental responsibility in believing and carrying forward on the premise that we need to actively do our bit in raising our children to be more responsible citizens and more importantly, more caring and empathetic human beings.  We, as a collective, as parents, need to make serious changes in the manner in which we talk to and convey to our children the importance of sex, consent, empathy and respect and how they are inextricably interlinked.



21 August, 2013

Happy Rakhi, you Nutty Siblings !!



Raksha Bandhan is the day, which, in many countries, symbolizes fraternal love, the bond between brothers and sisters.  In the olden days, this festival also had a very patriarchal feel, as I’m sure it does in many parts of India even today.  The sister ties a rakhi on the wrist of her brother (or brothers – as the case may be) and the brother is said to promise that he will protect his sister from all the evils in the world. 

Noble, it is.  But my question is, is this underlying sentiment pertinent in the world of today ?  It does give the whole thing a very “macho’ish’” feel.  It does portray the brothers as people who are invincible and the sisters as people who will need help from the brothers if the eventuality so presents itself.  I personally think it is a little presumptuous when viewed in the context of the realities of the modern world.  

To me, having been brought up an only child, the sibling relationship has always remained a mystery.  To a great extent, The Nutty Siblings are the ones that taught me the facets of a sibling relationship, the finer aspects of this hugely extensive dynamic.  I do realize, thanks to them, that siblings can drive each other nuts in a space of seconds and the very same siblings can join forces within the bat of an eyelid when faced with threat from another source.  They’ve taught me that siblings fight for apparently no reason at all and they make it seem as though it is every sibling’s favorite pastime.  They’ve taught me that the relationship between siblings runs very deep.  They may fight, they may scream at each other, they may roll their eyes at each other, they may huff and puff, they may sulk over seemingly inconsequential things – but, at the end of it all, within the deepest recesses of their minds, I’ve often seen that they cherish the bonds that they share, they appreciate the other being there for them when it is really needed and when it really counts, they value shared laughs, they attach a lot of importance to each others’ opinions, judgments and views.

To me, that bond that siblings share with each other, day in and day out, symbolizes Raksha Bandhan.  It is the very essence of that sacred thread we know as Rakhi because Rakhi is not just about a day – it is about the sibling relationship in all its color, complexity, energy and vibrancy and the colorful chaos, the vivid madness, the lively pandemonium and bedlam that only siblings can be capable of.

I remember a scene from a couple of years ago.  Pecan woke up in the middle of the night, crying because of a nightmare that had invaded his senses and left him with a deep sense of disquiet.  Macadamia, who normally is a heavy sleeper was wide awake and was sitting with Pecan throughout, assuring him, just as we were, that it was just a nightmare and that everything was indeed ok.  That night, lying on the upper bunk, she slept after she heard Pecan’s soft snores.  No matter what day of the year it falls on or what time of the day or the night, it happens to be, with siblings there are many a Rakhi moments.  This, in my books, was one such. 

Recently, when on our way back to HK from Phuket, Macadamia had an upset tummy and was in a pretty miserable shape throughout the flight back.  Sitting next to Pecan, I found him stealing looks at Macadamia many a time and I was asked an innumerable number of times whether she was in pain or whether she needed medicine, whether we had medicine, whether the stewardesses had some medicine that could help her and so on and so forth.  His brows were creased with worry and he kept asking her whether she was feeling better.  No matter where it is – on Earth or in mid air or in outer space even, when there are siblings, there are many a Rakhi moments.  This was one more. 

The two of you, dear Nutty Siblings, are more than just acquaintances.  You are cut from the same fabric.  Though the two of you may appear to be sewn in different patterns, you have common thread that won’t be broken, not be people, not by time, not by distances.

So go right ahead and have your tiffs, your arguments, your fights …. give each other attitude, complain, bicker, squabble …… debate over things…… for, like the younger sibling once said, that is indeed the way siblings communicate with each other.   Sibling relationships are among the most prized relationships in a lifetime.  How else would you have someone to throw a pillow at, someone to bug, someone to blame and yet, through all the fights and brawls, your sibling is the person you will laugh with when you goof up or when you slip and fall, or when you have one of those absolutely awkward moments. 

Here’s wishing The Nutty Siblings at home and all the siblings the world over, a very Happy Rakhi – each and every single day of their lifetime.

God Bless you both – today and always !!


15 August, 2013

Satyameva Jayate !!


(pic courtesy : zabrigraphics.com via Google)

India celebrates its 67th Independence Day today.  It was at midnight, on 15th of August, 1947, that Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed India’s Independence from the British Raj with his “Tryst with Destiny” speech.  That was India then.  An India whose history was full of invaders from other countries, who settled in the country, claimed it as their own and set out to plunder its riches. 

Here we stand today, 67 years later and yet, realist that I am, the one question that repeatedly resounds in my mind, is this : 

Is India truly independent ?

What exactly is independence ?  How would one define independence ?  Is it freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom from subjugation, freedom from foreign rule. ?  Is that it ? Is that all it is ? Yes, it is all of that and much more.  Independence is not just about rights, it is about our duties to the nation as well.  Independence is not just about a sense of belonging that we all profess to, but it needs involvement too.

Today, 67 years later, one realizes that the term “Independence” is not as objective as it seemed then.    The journey to “true freedom” still continues in the country.  For some sections of the society, women in particular, the path to ‘freedom and independence’ is just beginning to take roots in the country.  Women are just beginning to recognize the need to establish an identity for themselves and evolve into a faction whose contributions towards the society and the country are recognized, accepted and acknowledged.

As an Indian, I am proud of our country’s heritage, of its history, of its rich culture and its ethnic ethos.  However, that is not to say that I’m blind to the shortcomings in the country.  It has saddened me many a times in the past, the way politicians now seem to be driving this great country into a downward spiral, rather than driving its youth to reach for the skies and beyond.   The poor are probably just as miserable as they were when India attained freedom from the British Raj, national wealth is still being plundered (now by people within the country), social inequality is rearing its ugly head more visibly than ever before and we still have scores of social evils to contend with. 

67 years after Jawaharlal Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech that ushered India into independence as a state, those high ideals and that sense of possibility that suffused the speech then, have more than dulled.  Corruption has seeped into the very fabric of our constitution.  The population senses a feeling of hopelessness and of late, this is not just a matter of perception – it is tangible reality. 

At the risk of sounding like an idealist, what we, the people of India really need to start with, in an attempt to gain true independence is a change in attitudes and mindset.  Our nation will become truly independent when thought processes become independent.  People need to shed whatever narrow mindedness there is and in exchange, embrace broad mindedness which brings with it, a flow of positive thought and energy.  It would have to start at the grassroots.  It would have to start with people taking responsibility for their own actions, it would have to start with people refusing to give bribes and feed corruption in the country, it would have to start with people making their voices heard rather than staying quiet due to fear of a backlash. 

We need to truly imbibe the spirit of those words that are imprinted at the base of the national emblem “Satyameva Jayate” (Truth Alone Triumphs).   When I say “Satyameva Jayate” I do not mean Aamir Khan’s show on TV.  I mean the actual essence that will lay the roots towards driving our country to true independence.  Let truth triumph, Let the optimism in the minds of the people work towards strengthening the country, Let us be free of the negativities that are dragging us, as a people, down. May the youth be ever strong, inspired and motivated in moving towards an India that is progressive, strong and truly independent.

Vande Mataram !





  

13 August, 2013

It's raining, It's pouring and Yours Truly is whining !!!


(pic courtesy : weathertrends360.com via Google)

It was too good to last, was it not ?  In fact, it was a wonder it did last as long as it did.  A shade over two weeks, I guess.  If you’re someone who lives in HongKong, you would have figured out by now as to what I’m getting at.  Oh yes !  The gloriously sunny weather, the lovely blue skies – the weather, over the past couple of weeks has been absolutely splendid.  Even as I read the Observatory forecast a week or so of rainy weather starting today, I did find myself, hoping against hope that the Observatory was wrong.  Unfortunately (in this instance), turns out they were right.   

There is something totally bleak and gloomy about rainy weather.  There definitely is a correlation between rainy weather and behavior that borders on either depressing or rebelling.  Many people have drawn comparisons between rainy weather and life itself.  I’m not particularly feeling philosophical today, given that it is raining cats and dogs. 

Warning : Major Rant Ahead !!

If it is just passing showers we are talking about, I guess a major portion of the population would not have complaints.  In HK, there is no concept of passing showers.  When it rains, it pours and it just keeps pouring and pouring and pouring.  This year, it has been even more special.  I think HK has already had about three times its share of the usual annual rains.  Now it is not as if this abundance of rain water is being harnessed and put to good use.  The rain water (most of it) goes waste and HK buys its water supplies from neighboring China.  Makes a hell of a lot of sense, that one !!

As is the case with just about anything in life, I guess, there are two sides to the rain coin too.  There are people (like me, for instance) who get driven right up the wall if the weather is constantly or continuously rainy and bleak.  Give it a couple of days tops and by the third day of rainy weather, you’d probably find me perched on the ceiling, giving people dark looks from up there too. 
    
I need to get out and about today afternoon in this supremely wet and miserable weather.  I, for one, do not look forward to walking on the roads of HK during rains. Out on the roads, walking around in HK with an umbrella during heavy rains is like waving a red flag in front of a bull.  In this case, you are the red flag and you are the bull too.  For one, if you expect some sort of consideration from your fellow human beings on the road, it is as good as expecting the sun to rise from the West tomorrow.  I don’t know about other places but out here, in HK, is simply does not happen. 

In HK, at least among the local population, umbrellas are outdoor bowling balls.  As the owner of the umbrella walks on the pavement or the road, his/her only intention would be to ensure that their umbrella knocks down as many umbrellas moving in a direction opposite to them, as possible.  If you are walking with your umbrella open, hold on to it for dear life else your umbrella would end up being labeled “extremely accident prone”. 

If, in HK, you happen to be waiting at a bus stop for a bus, tell yourself repeatedly, time and again “I am Zen.  I am Zen.”  This is probably the only thing that would help you or stop you from screaming out aloud when you see people standing under the roof of the bus stops with their umbrellas wide open.  Oh yes, people !  Do spread the joy ! The skies would choose to open up extra heavy right then and all that water would pitter patter onto the open umbrellas and then guess where ?  Right onto you !!! It also does help that with an umbrella open, a person tends to take up the space of three people under the roof of a bus stop.  Yes, people in HK are very considerate that way.  Nineteen years here and I still haven’t been able to “get used” or reconcile myself to such thoughtlessness.

Yet again, the weather in HK is not just inconsistent.  It is incredibly fickle too.  HongKong is one of those places where one could start the day with bright sunshine and then witness rain pouring down in the next hour or so.  There could well be a storm in the afternoon and weather that is so calm in the evening that not a leaf on any single plant in the park would as much as a move.  HK is not just a multi cultural city it is some sort of a multi weather utopia too. 

I remember one such day, about a year back.  I was chaperoning Pecan over for his swimming lessons.  When we left home, the sun was shining nice and bright but by the time we reached Tsim Sha Tsui, it was pouring cats and dogs.  Oh well !  It was a swimming lesson and he had to get into the pool.  Not giving a thought to the fact that I would probably have to think of some quick laundry solution to dry our clothes at the YMCA (because we would be drenched by the time we walked from the bus stop to the YMCA), we made a dash for it.  We were just outside the YMCA when we saw these two youngish couples lounging around the entrance with an open umbrella !!  They were just aimlessly ambling around, taking up enough space such that no one could get in under the YMCA roof and they found it funny – the fact that they were standing under an open umbrella right at the entrance and that a large majority of the population there (some of whom were trying to get under the roof of the YMCA) were soaked to the skin but unable to get through these four morons “guarding” the entrance.  I honestly don’t remember what I said to them but from the stricken looks on their faces, I had indeed burst that tiny little bubble that they existed in, believing it to be the whole world.  I must have been quite a sight too, for they rushed off, giving the idiom “on the double” a totally different meaning.  If it was some experiment in psychology they were trying to conduct that day, I doubt if they got it done.  Or on second thoughts, maybe they did !  

Don’t you roll your eyes at me – I can see you doing that right now.  I warned you enough early on that this was going to be one massive rant.  If you’ve come this far, don’t look exasperated.  You should have considered yourself suitably warned and stopped reading before I got on your nerves !!!  Just saying !

Yet again, like I said earlier, there are two sides to a coin.  There are some  people who absolutely swear that rainy weather actually makes them feel better.  Yes, such people do exist, just in case you’ve begun to think that I’m off my rockers because of the rainy weather.

There have been people who have said that rain actually energizes them – because they equate rain to that marvel of nature that washes away sadness and such.  For some people, rain is something that calms them down and relaxes them. 

Aside of the logical theories that can be thrown my way (as in “can you imagine what it would be like if there were no rains.  There would be no water etc etc.  Thanks for that but yeah, I happen to know that.  Despite all that “Sherlocky logic”, constant rainy weather still turns me into a raving lunatic, as you can see. ), what kind of a “rain person” are you ?  Are you the kind that turns into some kind of demon with your nasty side being unleashed by constant rainy weather ?  Or are you the kind that turns all saintly and zen when the sky starts to send those droplets of water hurtling your way ? 

At times like these, the quote that comes to mind is this one :

“Anyone that thinks that sunshine is pure happiness has never danced in the rain”.  

Truth be told, I'll take sunshine over rain, any day.

How about you ?  Do tell.

09 August, 2013

When Chocolate (our little stuffed dog) went AWOL ....


(That is a picture of Chocolate onboard Garuda Indonesia, on our way back from Bali, in 2011.)


It had been cold during the night.  The others seemed not to mind but he had been cold.  He had been quite tired when he got to bed late the previous night.  Yet, despite his weariness, sleep did not claim him.  Tired but awake, he lay listening to the frogs croak.  It had rained and the smell of the wet earth, of swirls of soil and dust rising in the air after the first drops of rain hit the parched earth, seeped in through the large French windows and permeated his nostrils.   The impertinent little mosquitoes hummed around, seemingly oblivious to the vile smell of the mosquito repellent in the room.  Even these little sounds of nature in the background could not lull him into slumber.  He finally snuggled into the soft, velvetiness of the quilts and sighed as the quilt wrapped him in a warm embrace. 

The birds were chirping yet again, but this time they seemed particularly loud.  There was a humming noise which he recognized as the lawn mower.  He could hear the swish of the little blades as they unthinkingly ripped through the blades of grass in the lawn.  He wondered how the grass must feel – did it feel fear as the blades moved closer to wiping it into oblivion.  “Come on now !  Stop being sentimental, you old fool” said the voice in his head.  In the midst of all the noise around him, his senses were humming – for they had identified the lack of the usually inexhaustible source of din - the children.  He could not hear them fighting, he could not hear them whining or bickering with each other, like they normally did.  The sounds were usually painful enough to make him want to stick his paws into his ears but it had never quite been possible.  Today, there was blessed peace, he thought, grinning to himself, ear to ear, as he leapt out of bed.  One look around confirmed that there was no one about.  He waited for them to get back from breakfast while he sunned himself on the porch.   He watched a caterpillar lazily make its way to the lawns, blissfully oblivious of the centipede which was following it.  He looked at the squirrels foraging for food and at the birds streaking across the sky. 

About an hour later, the bells in his head started to ring out warning tones because the children were not back yet.  Neither were the parents.  The initial euphoria over freedom was now giving way to a slight trepidation.  Could they have forgotten him here ?  Was that really possible ?  He had not even considered that possibility.  What was he going to do all by himself in this strange land ?  He moped and he whined, he sulked at the unfairness of it all as the sun started beating down, heightening the heat and humidity.  “Ok lazybones” said the voice in his head.   “Time to go look for some food” the voice said.  He padded out onto the porch.  Looked around and found no one.   He took off into the gardens, his sense of freedom now heightened, his sense of adventure awakened. 
  
“We had asked for a taxi” he heard the man say to the lady at the reception.  “To the airport” he said as he paced up and down.   Crouched among the little bushes in the garden, Chocolate almost jumped for joy.  There it was.  His ticket back home.  Once he got to the airport, things would be pretty straightforward and he could hop onto an airplane heading back home.  He almost jumped and yelped in sheer joy.
The airport was a huge maze.  Chocolate had managed to get into the car unnoticed and had sat quietly, his head down on his paws throughout the car ride.  He had managed to slip out of the car, unnoticed, once the car reached the airport.  The big man was busy paying off the driver when Chocolate padded off through one of the many doors.  “How do I know which one leads back home ?” he thought to himself.  “All the doors look the same” he realized, in dismay.   He was tired and just wanted to sit someplace and get back home.  That was when he spotted a long, large, black belt.  All the boxes were lined up on the belt and they did not have to walk.  The belt took them wherever they wanted to go.  “I should do that too” thought Chocolate as he hopped on to the conveyor belt.  He was amazed at the sight of so many boxes, all different sizes, shapes and colours.   He stared, slackjawed, at the multitude of rainbows that seemed to be moving all around him, in unison.  The effect was almost psychedelic.

The screech almost brought the entire airport to a halt.  Guards rushed in, guns drawn and fingers on the trigger.  The airport staff had all but ducked under their respective desks.  Chocolate stared in wide eyed terror as he identified the source of the seemingly unending screech.  There they were – like a gaggle of geese – all yelling at the same time, trying to make their voice sound louder than the others’.  To his horror, he realized that all their fingers, however, were pointing in the same direction.  Towards him.  As the security guards turned around, Chocolate leapt off the conveyor belt and ran like he had never run in his life before.  He could hear people screaming all around him, he could hear bags toppling, high pitched voices that made the whole airport sound like an insane scene from one of the Die Hard movies.  Oh Yes !  Chocolate was a huge Die Hard fan, like the rest of his family.  The only person missing at the airport that day was Bruce Willis. That would have been just picture perfect, he thought to himself, as he ran all the way back to the resort.  Atleast people there would not be chasing him around with guns or screeching at him like chimpanzees in a frenzy, he pondered and sighed.

He had reached the familiar grounds of the resort and had rested a while in the shades of the trees as he watched the gardeners trim the bushes and clean the ponds.  He watched tiny little tadpoles being washed away in a stream of water and he watched the huge bumblebees looking for nectar in the abundant flowerbeds within the resort grounds.  Restlessness grabbed him soon and he stretched himself. 

He walked onto the busy road and soon found himself in the market place.  There was loads of food there as well.  He was busy gorging himself on the scraps of meat when he heard a low growl.  He looked around, his eyes little pools of liquid chocolate, now wide as saucers as he saw the huge alley cat cowering at him, hissing menacingly.  “Hey there Tom”  yelled Chocolate, a false sense of bravado taking over now.  “Waiting for Jerry, huh ?” he said and guffawed, only to find himself looking into a pair of sinister eyes that had turned into mean looking slits of bad intentions.  “Uh Oh” Chocolate thought to himself and decided that the flight response in this case was infinitely better than his rather non-existent fight response.  One dialogue that the elder sibling in his family often repeated, came to mind and Chocolate tried to sound all zen and said “I am a peace activist.  I mean no harm”.  That sinister ball of fur crouched and leapt towards Chocolate as he yelped and fled.  His head held high, he dashed through the aisles in the market.

Something landed in front of him with a huge thump, made his eyes smart and his nostrils twitch.  He saw chillies, a sea of chillies and he was right in the midst of it all.  He looked up just in time to see a humongous shop owner come after him with what looked like a very dangerous looking instrument.  “Coconut !!!!” she yelled.  She cut a rather imposing figure, this woman.  She was huge, with folds of her belly straining to hop out of the tight apron that she had squeezed herself into.  Her eyes were rather bloodshot and the jowls in her cheeks quivered as she moved like that of a Pit Bull Terrier.  She yelled one more time “Coconut !!!” and advanced towards him.  “Yikes !!!  Yo !  I’m not Coconut.  My name is Chocolate” he yelled but to no avail.  She kept coming towards him with the huge cleaver held high.  “Oh God ! She’s drunk” thought Chocolate in horror as he dashed across  into another aisle, this one wider than the previous one and darted out, a streak of brown and all of a sudden he felt icy cold.  He found himself dripping wet.  In all the confusion, he had managed to dart right into the legs of yet another fat man who had been carrying a whole basket load of fish.  Something was staring at him and he almost yelped out aloud when he saw that he was face to face with a shark.  It took a while for him to realize that it was a shark, but a dead one.  He shook his head to fling aside the octopus that had landed on his head and heard the man yelling this time.  The man looked like a beached whale, lying there as he yelled at someone to give him a hand and help him get up. 

Sensing that he was at the end of the market, Chocolate made a dash out of the market, reeking of fish and suddenly the world turned all colourful.  He was surrounded by colours.  “Oh !  Maybe the fat lady killed me and I’m in heaven” thought Chocolate, as he moved from a pink hue to a bright yellow one.  he felt himself being lifted as bright sunlight shone on his face and he realized that he was pretty much still on Earth.  He had run into a bikini which was about to be put up on a mannequin and much to his horror, he found himself stuck between what seemed like two little mountains on the mannequin.  His head stuck out, right in the middle.  “Egad !!  Boobies !!!” muttered Chocolate as he busied himself, trying to wiggle out of the top of the bikini.  There were tourists milling about and they were having a good laugh.  A little dog caught between the boobs on a mannequin !!!  yelled one of the badly sun-burnt tourists, as he reached for his camera. 

“Coconut” yelled someone and Chocolate looked around in horror as he saw the fat lady with the meat cleaver wobbling around in his direction.  Yelping and cursing, Chocolate wiggled for his life, trying to get himself out of the bikini and flopped onto solid ground.  He ran like he had never run before and heard thuds all around him.  “Yikes!!” he yelped.  “I am on a minefield”  he thought in horror as he remembered reading about minefields in one of the many books back home.  The thuds continued, each one louder than the earlier, as Chocolate zipped around, not wanting to be the first dog victim on an old minefield.  It took a whole plastic pot of spices on his head to realize that it was not a minefield but a whole cart full of spice pots.  In his mad rush, he had run right into the skirts of the lady selling the spice mixes.  She had freaked and hopped around like someone gone insane.  Her voluminous skirts had, in the process, wrapped themselves around the hapless Chocolate and the Spice Lady hopped around to rid herself of the thing in her skirt while Chocolate zipped and zoomed, trying to find a way out of what seemed like a never-ending sea of cloth. 

Once out of the folds of the cloth, Chocolate ran into an empty stall which seemed much safer than the insanity of the marketplace.  There were a couple there, busy chatting with each other and suddenly, they got up and left.  On the table, they had left behind a couple of glasses still half full of some colourful liquid.  It looked wonderful, with condensation dripping from the icy drinks.  Seemed like a mannah from heaven – those icy drinks in the hot weather that had completely parched his throat.  Since there was no one around, Chocolate stuck his mouth into the glass and lapped up the icy drink.  It did taste weird but it was icy cool.  By the time he had finished the liquid in both glasses, the world was beginning to spin around him.  He felt good !!!!  He was in a mighty happy place !!!

His head still felt woozy and he was sure he had a goofy grin plastered on his face.  The grin that had just come on by itself just refused to go away, no matter what.  The last thing he remembered was two tall glasses of icy drinks. 

He was still grinning when he heard the all too familiar, loud “Hallo” … the voice seemed to float towards him from high up above, as did the owner of the voice.  She sounded very familiar and the voice was comforting and cheerful.  He felt himself being picked up and being embraced by what felt like a very safe pair of hands. 

He awoke to a faint buzzing sound the next morning.  “It’s a bee” thought Chocolate as he flapped his paws around.  “Funny !” he thought to himself, “the bee seems to be inside my head”.  He shook his head a couple of times but the bee just wouldn’t go away.  “Hallo” floated the same voice again and Chocolate opened his eyes, only to find himself staring at a pair of legs.  He looked up, squinting against the brightness of the sunlight and recognized the owner of the voice.  The cheerful lady who cooked eggs at breakfast.  The ever smiling lady who always seemed to be in a happy, cheerful place was now patting his head and stroking his fur.  Someone in the restaurant brought him a bowl of milk which he lapped up gratefully.

“You were missed and your family has been looking for you” said another voice.  This voice sounded much less warm and Chocolate paused and looked up.  He recognized the bald manager, the same manager who Chocolate had often seen around the resort.  He remembered seeing the manager, many a times, hopping around the resort like a headless chicken and Chocolate had always found him an incessant source of amusement, for, not only was the manager confused most of the time, he was quite adept at perplexing the staff to such an extent that some of them seemed to have perpetually bewildered looks on their faces, every time they were with the Manager.  By the time Chocolate looked up again, the manager had disappeared, presumably to go shopping for crabs or some such.  He just had to do everything himself.  “What a control freak” thought Chocolate morosely, as he thought about his family.  He missed them and wanted to be back home. He missed the insanity and the lunacy that was omnipresent in all members of the family.

Enough of my adventures, thought Chocolate.  It was fun but like we say at home – "Too much of anything is good for nothing” he thought to himself.  He longed to be back home, he yearned to hear familiar voices, he craved to hear the kids’ voices, even though, more often than not, they bickered with each other and were constantly at each others’ throats.  He missed all of that and much more.  He felt acutely homesick.

“Do you want to go back home ?”  asked a voice.  It was a soft voice.  He looked up and found himself staring into the warm eyes of the young girl he had often found in the Reception Desk of the resort.  “We will send you back home, to your family” she said, as she patted his head.  

They made sure Chocolate was comfortable and he had a very cushy ride back home.  He slept through most of it and woke up to an excited chatter of voices.  He opened his eyes, slowly, not quite believing what he was seeing.  Familiar faces, familiar voices, familiar walls …. everything was recognizable.  It was the proverbially insane household and he was back in it.  Yes, they were insane people and it was a mad family but he had missed them …. badly.  

Simply put, it felt immensely good to be back home. Woof Woof !!

06 August, 2013

Swami Vivekananda - An Extended Essay by Aparna Venkitaraman




Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda was a monk, a poet and the chief disciple of the saint Ramakrishna. He is also considered to be one of the key figures who introduced the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the western world. He is also credited for publicizing Hinduism and bringing it to the status of a world religion by the end of the 19th century.

Swami Vivekananda was born into a rich Bengali family in Calcutta on the 12th of January in 1863 and was originally given the name Narendra Nath Datta. He was one of nine siblings and his family belonged to a traditional Bengali Kayastha family. The word “Kayastha” is the Sanskrit word for “Scribe” and it is one of the castes in the Hindu caste system. 
Vishwanath Datta, Narendra’s father, was an attorney of the Calcutta High Court while his grandfather, Durgacharan Datta, was a scholar of Sanskrit and Persian who left the family to become a monk at the age of 25. His mother, Bhuvaneswari Devi was a very religious housewife. The combination of his father’s rational and reasonable methods with his mother’s religious character helped shape his way of thinking as well as his personality and beliefs. As a child, Narendra was very interested in spirituality. He used to “play” by meditating before images of different Indian deities such as Rama – an avatar of Vishnu (the protector/preserver), Sita – Rama’s wife and Shiva (the destroyer/transformer). He was also very intrigued by the monks that used to pass by his home and wander around regularly. He was also known to be rather mischievous and his parents found it hard to control and discipline him. His mother once said — “I prayed to Shiva for a son and he has sent me one of his demons.”

Datta first studied at the school of Sri Eswar Chandra Vidya Sagar and completed his primary education there. In 1871, he went to Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar's Metropolitan Institution where he studied until 1877 when his family had to move out of Calcutta to Raipur. He returned to Calcutta with his family in 1879 to attend university at Presidency College. He received first division marks for the entrance examination there and he was the only student in the college to do so that year. Narendra was an enthusiastic reader and he was very interested in a wide range of subjects including philosophy, history, religion, art, social sciences and literature. He also displayed an interest in various Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. He was a gifted musician and he had an aptitude for a variety of musical activities. He was also trained in Indian classical music and had a great singing voice, although he didn’t aim to pursue a professional career in music. Apart from this, he also participated in various sports and physical activities. Datta went on to study western logic, western philosophy and European history at the General Assembly's Institution in Calcutta (now known as the Scottish Church College). In 1881, he passed the Fine Arts exam at the institution and he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree three years later. He managed to master the English language and he proved to be a very eloquent public speaker. Soon after he received his degree, he began to study the works and compositions of many of the known philosophers and scientists of the time including David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Baruch Spinoza, Georg W. F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Darwin. This was when Narendra Datta developed a fascination with Herbert Spencer’s works about evolutionism and coordinated with him by translating Spencer’s book, Education into Bengali. But whilst he was studying western philosophy, he also managed to familiarise himself with different Sanskrit scriptures as well as Bengali literature. Several descriptions of Narendra describe him as a srutidhara—a man with an extraordinary memory. The principal of General Assembly's Institution, Dr. William Hastie said – “Narendra is really a genius. I have travelled far and wide but I have never come across a lad of his talents and possibilities, even in German universities, among philosophical students.”

However, even after he completed his education, he wasn’t very interested in world affairs. He let his parents know about his thoughts before travelling to witness the famous mystic, Swami Ramakrishna, deliver a lecture. Narendra Datta first heard of Swami Ramakrishna while he was still studying at the General Assembly’s Institution. During a literature class, Professor William Hastie was lecturing on William Wordsworth’s poem The Excursion. While explaining the importance of the word “trance” in the poem, Professor Hastie suggested that the students should visit Swami Ramakrishna to know the real meaning of a trance. With a further positive recommendation from one of his relatives, Ramchandra Datta, he knew that he simply had to visit Swami Ramakrishna. In November 1881 Narendra went over to Surendra Nath Mitra's house where Swami Ramakrishna was scheduled to give a lecture. Surendra Nath Mitra was one of the major devotees of Swami Ramakrishna who happened to live on the same street as Narendra Datta at the time. During the meeting, Swami Ramakrishna asked Narendra to sing. He impressed Swami Ramakrishna with his singing talent and this prompted the mystic to ask Narendra to come to Dakshineshwar to meet him. Later on in 1881 or in early 1882, Narendra went to Dakshineshwar to meet Swami Ramakrishna along with two of his friends. At first, he did not agree with his ideas and did not accept him as his guru. But, his personality drew him back to Dakshineshwar frequently to meet Swami Ramakrishna. Although he thought that Swami Ramakrishna’s trances were simply mere figments of his imagination, he kept coming back to test him with his arguments. Swami Ramakrishna simply responded with patience and once replied – “Try to see the truth from all angles.” In 1884, Narendra’s father suddenly passed away, leaving the family bankrupt and desperate due to the lack of money. Money collectors started to ask his family to return the money that his father had borrowed while his relatives threatened to evict the family from their ancestral home. Although Narendra attempted to find a job in order to help his family, he was unsuccessful. During this unfortunate period of time, he began to wonder if god really existed and his visits to Dakshineshwar increased to gain support from Swami Ramakrishna. He slowly began to get ready to give up everything in order to realise and understand God. He eventually accepted Swami Ramakrishna as his guru too. 

Unfortunately, Swami Ramakrishna developed throat cancer in 1885 and was transferred from his home in Dakshineshwar to Calcutta. He was later transferred again from Calcutta to a garden house in Cossipore, a neighbourhood in the north of Calcutta. Narendra took great care of the Swami along with the rest of his disciples. Even during his last days, Swami Ramakrishna still continued to teach Narendra spiritual education. While Narendra was in Cossipore to take care of the ill Swami, he experienced Nirvakalpa. Nirvakalpa is a state where one realizes that he/she is finally with God and is in union with God. Several of the disciples including him received ochre-coloured robes from Swami Ramakrishna in order to form the first monastic group created by the Swami. Ramakrishna asked Narendra to take care of the rest of the disciples of the order while asking the other disciples to treat Narendra as their leader. The Swami died during the early hours of the 16th of August 1886 at the age of 50. Soon after his death, many of his admirers, devotees and followers stopped funding and giving donations to pay for the group’s expenses. This forced them to find a new place to live. Many of the remaining disciples returned to their homes and started to lead a normal family life. During this time, Narendra found an old, shabby house in Baranagar and decided to make it the new monastery that would also act as accommodation for the remaining disciples. The monastery was rather cheap and all expenses were funded by “holy begging”. This monastery was the first building of the Ramakrishna Math – the monastery of the monastic order of Swami Ramakrishna. Narendra and the disciples went through a lot of religious practice during their stay at the monastery. They used to wake up at 3am to do japa and meditate. In early 1887, Narendra first chose to take the name Swami Bibidishananda. The Maharaja of Khetri gave him the name Swami Vivekananda two years later.

Narendra decided to leave the monastery in 1888 to become a Parivrâjaka – a Hindu, wandering monk. During this period of time, his only possessions were a kamandalu (a water pot) and two of his favourite books – the Bhagavad Gita and Imitation of Christ. Swami Vivekananda travelled to various destinations all over India, stopping at places where he could learn about the different religious traditions that existed while also learning to understand and accept the different social, community systems and patterns in the residents’ lives. As he travelled further, he started to develop sympathy for the poor and those living in dire poverty. During his expedition, he survived mainly on bhiksha (alms) and travelled on foot. His railway tickets were usually bought for him by his admirers when he met them during his travels. Wherever he went, he met people from various societies, religions and castes. He met scholars, administrators, monarchs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, pariahs and government officials and made acquaintance with them.

One of his first destinations was the holy town of Varanasi where he wanted to visit the famous places where Gautam Buddha and Adi Shankara lectured and taught their own disciples. While he was in Varanasi, he also met Bhudev Mukhopadhyay, a Bengali writer, Trailanga Swami, a Hindu saint and Babu Pramadadas Mitra, a renowned Sanskrit scholar. He worked with Babu Pramadadas Mitra on the interpretation and meaning of various Hindu scriptures. After he completed his stay in Varanasi, he travelled to Ayodhya, Lucknow, Agra, Vrindavan, Hathras and Rishikesh. After his visits in the north of India, he visited Vaidyanath and Allahabad. After his stay there, he travelled to Ghazipur to meet Pavhari Baba, an ascetic who spent most of his time in deep meditation. But, at the time, Pavhari Baba was suffering from lumbago, which made it impossible for him to meditate. Swami Vivekananda requested to be his new disciple and he accepted. But, the night before Vivekananda’s initiation as a disciple, he dreamt of Ramakrishna looking at him with a dejected face which caused him to withdraw his wish to become one of Pavhari Baba’s disciples. He returned to the Ramakrishna Math in 1890 due to fact that he was slightly ill, but also because he had to arrange for a new source of funds to cover the monastery’s expenses. He left in July of the same year to visit the Himalayas. He was accompanied by Akhandananda who was also a disciple of Swami Ramakrishna.  They visited Nainital, Almora, Srinagar, Dehradun, Rishikesh and Haridwar during this particular visit to the north. On the way, he met Swami Brahmananda, Swami Saradananda, Swami Turiyananda and Swami Advaitananda. The pair stayed in Meerut for a while to pray, engage in meditation and study scriptures and they left for Delhi at the end of January in 1891.

After visiting several historically famous sites in Delhi, Swami Vivekananda decided to travel to Alwar – a city in Rajputana (now known as the state of Rajasthan). He also travelled to Jaipur where he met up with a Sanskrit scholar to study Panini’s Ashtadhyayi. Panini was a grammarian of Sanskrit in the north-west of Iron Age India (now known as Charsadda district in Pakistan). After this, he travelled to Ajmer to visit the well-known palace of the Mughal emperor, Akbar as well as the Dargah Sharif. The Dargah Sharif (also known as the Ajmer Sharif) is a Sufi shrine of the Sufi saint, Moinuddin Chishti. When he visited Mount Abu, he met Raja Ajit Singh of Khetri who became Swami Vivekananda’s zealous supporter and devotee. A senior monk who was also part of the Ramakrishna order, Swami Tathagatananda described and wrote about their relationship saying – “Swami Vivekananda's friendship with Maharaja Ajit Singh of Khetri was enacted against the backdrop of Khetri, a sanctified town in Northern Rajasthan, characterized by its long heroic history and independent spirit. Destiny brought Swamiji and Ajit Singh together on 4 June 1891 at Mount Abu, where their friendship gradually developed through their mutual interest in significant spiritual and secular topics. The friendship intensified when they travelled to Khetri and it became clear that theirs was the most sacred friendship, that of a Guru and his disciple.” Swami Vivekananda also delivered lectures to the Raja during his stay in Khetri and got to know the pandit, Ajjada Adibhatla Narayana Dasu. They studied the Mahābhāṣya (a commentary about a selection of Sanskrit grammar rules) together in Khetri. After around two months in Khetri, Swami Vivekananda proceeded towards the state of Maharashtra.      

Swami Vivekananda began to travel towards the western side of India and started off by visiting Ahmedabad. In Ahmedabad, he managed to complete his studies of Islamic and Jain culture. He then travelled to Wadhwan and Limbdi – two cities that are situated in the state of Gujarat. When he visited the city of Limbdi, he met Thakur Saheb Jaswant Singh. Thakur Saheb Jaswant Singh had been to England and North America and Swami Vivekananda got the idea of preaching about Vedanta in countries that were situated in the western world. Later on, he visited Jugarnadh at the foot of the Girnar hills in Gujarat. He was the guest of the administrator of the state, Haridas Viharidas Desai. Swami Vivekananda impressed the dewan to an extent that Haridas Viharidas Desai and many of the other state officals of Gujarat would chat to the Swami every evening. These conversations would usually continue until late at night. After his stay in Jugarnadh, Swami Vivekananda also visited Girnar, Kutch, Porbander, Dwaraka, Palitana, Nadiad and Baroda. He stayed in Porbander for three quarters of a year to further his philosophical understanding and his Sanskrit studies with learned pandits in the area. Some of his next destinations included Mahabaleshwar, Pune, Khandwa and Indore and Kathiawar. While he was at Kathiawar, he heard about the Parliament of Religions for the first time and was encouraged by his followers to go to it. After a short stay in the city of Bombay during July in 1892, he managed to meet Bal Gangadhar Tilak during a train journey to Pune where Tilak was his host. He then travelled to Belgaum, Panaji and Margao in Goa where he spent a few days at the Rachol Seminary where rare religious manuscripts were preserved. While he was at the seminary, he studied Christian spiritual works.

Following his visit to cities in the west, Swami Vivekananda proceeded to travel to the south of India. First, he visited K. Seshadri Iyer, the administrator of the state of Mysore in Bangalore. He stayed at the palace as a special guest of Charmarajendra Wadiyar, the maharaja of Mysore. K. Seshadri Iyer described Swami Vivekananda as “a magnetic personality and a divine force which were destined to leave his mark on the history of his country.” Maharaja Charmarajendra Wadiyar also gave Vivekananda a letter of introduction meant for the Dewan of Cochin. He also supplied him with a railway ticket. After he left Bangalore, he visited Trichur, Kodungalloor, and Ernakulam. While he was in Ernakulam, he met up with Chattampi Swamikal – the partner of Narayana Guru who was also a Hindu saint. This took place in December, 1892. From Ernakulam, he then travelled to Trivandrum and Nagercoil. From Nagercoil, he travelled further and reached Kanyakumari on foot during Christmas Eve. At Kanyakumari, he swam to what he called “the last bit of Indian rock” and meditated on it. This rock was later known as the Vivekananda rock memorial. Swami Vivekananda had a vision that is now known as the “Vision of One India” or “The Kanyakumari resolve of 1892.” He wrote – “At Cape Camorin sitting in Mother Kumari's temple, sitting on the last bit of Indian rock—I hit upon a plan: We are so many sanyasis wandering about, and teaching the people metaphysics—it is all madness. Did not our Gurudeva use to say, 'An empty stomach is no good for religion?' We as a nation have lost our individuality and that is the cause of all mischief in India. We have to raise the masses.” Soon after, he visited Madurai where he came across the Raja of Ramnad, Bhaskara Sethupati. The Raja soon became another one of Vivekananda’s disciples and urged him to be present at the Parliament of Religions which was scheduled to take place in Chicago. After travelling to several other places in southern India including Rameswaram, Pondicherry and Madras, he collected enough money from his admirers and disciples to fund his trip to the United States. He left for Chicago on the 31st of May 1893 from Bombay.

Swami Vivekananda visited some cities in China and Japan en route to Chicago. When he arrived, he was disappointed at the fact that he wouldn’t be accepted as a delegate at the Parliament of Religions unless he got approval from a legal, legitimate organisation. Professor John Wright of Harvard University invited him to lecture at the university and was shocked at the fact that he couldn’t speak at the Chicago Parliament simply because he lacked an approval. Wright supposedly said – “To ask for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine in the heavens.” The Parliament of World Religions opened on the 11th of September in 1893 at Chicago’s Art Institute. During the day, Swami Vivekananda gave his first brief speech and started it off by saying “Sisters and Brothers of America!” This triggered a standing ovation from an audience of 7000 people which lasted for two whole minutes before silence was restored. He greeted the nation on behalf of “the most ancient order of monks in the world, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.” He also quoted two expressive paragraphs from the Shiva Mahima stotram – “As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee!" and "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths that in the end lead to Me.” Although his speech wasn’t very long, it was filled with the spirit of universality and unity. Dr. Barrows, the head of the parliament praised the Swami by saying – “India, the Mother of religions was represented by Swami Vivekananda, the Orange-monk who exercised the most wonderful influence over his auditors.” Swami Vivekananda also attracted attention from the press as many newspapers began to publish articles about him, complimenting his eloquence while he spoke. He spoke several more times at the parliament about various topics related to Hinduism, Buddhism and the harmony of all religions. All of his speeches had the common theme of universality and they also emphasized religion tolerance.

Subsequent to the parliament of Religions, the Swami spent almost two years travelling to various parts of eastern and central areas in the United States to lecture his newfound admirers, although most of his lectures took place in Chicago, Boston, Detroit and New York. They became so popular that he founded the “Vedanta Society of New York” in 1894. Unfortunately, his busy schedule led to his poor health and he was too ill to continue his lecturing tours by early 1895. Although he was rather unwell, he started to give free and private lessons about Yoga and Vedanta. He also started to give private lectures to around a dozen of his disciples in June 1895 and these lectures took place at the Thousand Island Park in New York and continued for two months. He travelled to England twice – In 1895 and 1896. His lectures were successful there too. During his visit in 1895, he met an Irish woman named Margaret Elizabeth Noble who was one of his admirers in the UK. She later became Sister Nivedita who was one of the major contributors to the monastery and to Swami Vivekananda’s goal (spreading Yoga and Vedanta to the western world). During his second visit to England in May 1896, Vivekananda met Max Müller, a distinguished Indologist from Oxford University who wrote Swami Ramakrishna’s first biography in the western world. In the same year, he also visited several other countries in Europe. He met Paul Deussen, another Indologist in Germany. He was offered two academic leadership positions in two different American universities – one for the chair of Eastern Philosophy at Harvard University as well as a similar position at the Columbia University. But, he declined these positions, since they would cause problems due to the fact that he had a commitment as a monk. Swami Vivekananda attracted many fervent followers and admirers in the United States as well as in Europe, such as Josephine MacLeod, William James, Josiah Royce, Robert G. Ingersoll, Nikola Tesla, Lord Kelvin, Harriet Monroe, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Sarah Bernhardt, Emma Calvé, and Professor Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz. He also admitted some of his followers into his mission. For example, a French woman name Marie Louise became Swami Abhayananda. Even though he wasn’t in India at the time, he still communicated with his followers and fellow monks in India from where he was while also offering funds. His letters clearly reflected his intention to spread religion while also reflecting the motives of him campaign for social service around India. A letter to Swami Abhayananda from Swami Vivekananda said – “Go from door to door amongst the poor and lower classes of the town of Khetri and teach them religion. Also, let them have oral lessons on geography and such other subjects. No good will come of sitting idle and having princely dishes, and saying "Ramakrishna, O Lord!"—unless you can do some good to the poor.” He left for India on the 16th of December in 1896 from England with three of his disciples – Captain Sevier, Mrs Sevier, and J.J. Goodwin.

The ship from Europe arrived in Colombo on the 15th of January 1897 where Swami Vivekananda received an enthusiastic welcome. While he was in Colombo, he gave what is known to be his very first speech in the East – India, the Holy Land. From there, he journeyed to Calcutta, stopping at places on the way to give lectures. From Colombo, he travelled to Pamban, Rameswaram, Ramnad, Madurai, Kumbakonam and Madras before finally reaching Calcutta. During his train journeys, people would frequently squat on the tracks in front of the oncoming train to force the train to stop, just so that they could meet him hear him speak. After he reached Calcutta, he continued his journey and travelled to Almora – a town in Uttarakhand. Although he talked about the great spiritual history in the west, he addressed social issues and problems while speaking in India. Some of his ideas included the uplift and improvement of the population, getting rid of the caste system, promoting science, industrialising the country, addressing the widespread poverty and also ending the colonial rule. These lectures were compiled and published as Lectures from Colombo to Almora and they demonstrate his passion for his country. His speeches and lectures influenced and inspired several Indian leaders including Mahatma Gandhi, Bipin Chandra Pal, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. On the 1st of May in 1897, Swami Vivekananda created the Ramakrishna Mission. The Ramakrishna mission was created to be the organisation to promote social service and its motives and ideas were based on Karma (also known as Karma-Yoga). Its leading body consisted of representatives of the Ramakrishna Math and they were responsible for carrying out any work related to religion. The headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and the Ramakrishna Mission are situated in Belur. In addition to his first monastery, Vivekananda also founded two other monasteries. One was situated in the Himalayas and was known as the Advaita/Mayavati Ashram while the other was located in Madras. He started two journals – Prabuddha Bharata was written in English while Udbodhan was written in Bengali.      

Regardless of his worsening health, Swami Vivekananda decided to travel to the west for the second time. He left in June 1899 and was accompanied by Sister Nivedita and Swami Turiyananda. After a short stay in England, he travelled to the United States once more. During this particular visit, he launched Vedanta societies in San Francisco and New York. He also founded the Shanti Ashram (Peace Retreat) in California. After the founding of various societies, he reached Paris in time to attend the Congress of Religions in 1900. While he was in Paris, he lectured mainly about the worship of a Shiva-linga and also about the validity of the Bhagavad Gita. After he completed his lectures in Paris, he visited Brittany, Vienna, Istanbul, Athens and Egypt before returning to Calcutta in December. He took a short trip to visit the Advaita Ashram in the Himalayas and then settled down in Belur to coordinate the works of the Ramakrishna Math, the Ramakrishna Mission and the work that was being done in the United States and in England. He was visited frequently by many people including royalties and even politicians. Unfortunately, he was unable to join the Congress of Religions in Japan in 1901 due to his deteriorating health. But, he did go on pilgrimages to Varanasi and Bodhgaya, but he wasn’t able to do much because ailments such as asthma, diabetes and chronic insomnia restricted his activities there.

On the 4th of July 1902, Swami Vivekananda woke up early in the morning to go to the chapel of Belur to meditate for three hours or so. He then taught Sanskrit grammar and yoga philosophy to some of his pupils who had lessons with him that day. He also shared his idea to start a Vedic college in the Ramakrishna Math with his colleagues. At around 7pm, he went into his room and requested that he didn’t want to be disturbed. He died at 10 past nine while he was meditating. According to several of his disciples, he experienced Mahasamadhi – the act of consciously leaving one’s own body at the time of enlightenment.  A rupture in the blood vessels in the Swami’s brain were reported as the probable cause of his death, but his disciples believed that the rupture was due to Brahmarandhra (the hollow place in the crown of the head) being pierced while he experienced enlightenment and when his soul left his body. He was cremated on a sandalwood pyre on the banks of the Ganges in Belur, near the spot where his guru, Swami Ramakrishna was cremated too.

Although Swami Vivekananda died more than a century ago, his teachings still live among a population of modern Vivekananda admirers and followers. He was an extraordinary man with a ready mind and he had the gift of speaking in front of large groups of people with elegance and articulation – a skill which I admire and one that I hope to acquire in the near future. His hard work and dedication definitely paid off in the end, due to the fact that he was able to bring Hinduism to the status of a world religion while publicizing the works and philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga as I have mentioned in the introduction. Even though he was considered to be a spiritual genius, he was still able to think rationally because of his upbringing which had an effect on the way he thought about certain things. Once he knew exactly what he wanted to do, he never gave up and always worked to pursue and achieve his goals in life. Although I’m not a strong believer of spiritualism, Swami Vivekananda has definitely taught me several things while inspiring me to become a better person as I have studied not only his life, but also his personality. Whilst he was a Parivrâjaka, he used to travel to many different places and meet many different types of people, not caring about their social status, religion or their way of life. He wasn’t judgemental in that way, something that many humans currently lack. I know that I can be very judgemental in certain situations, and I know that I shouldn’t be. So this is one thing that I can work on. He didn’t give up easily, even if problems arose or if people on the side lines were possibly commenting on his methods. This is one thing that I place near the top of my list about things that I need to change about myself. I tend to think about what other people think about me, even though I really try not to. I am also quite sensitive, even though I have become better than I used to be. Bullying is one thing that has affected me during my primary school life (and possibly even now, though it isn’t as severe), and Swami Vivekananda has definitely inspired me to forget about what anybody else thinks about me so that I can try as hard as I can to achieve my own goals. In conclusion, I believe that Swami Vivekananda was a very inspirational character to many people. He still inspires people today, including me. His teachings have not been forgotten and he is still recognised as one of the spiritual geniuses of the 19th century. I admire his great personality and I hope to improve myself in several different ways to become a better person altogether.    



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