This day, September 11, is a special day for Indians in general and Tamils in particular.
A hundred and twenty four years ago, on 11 September, 1893, a young Hindu hesitatingly stood on a platform in America. He was praying in his heart to Saraswati, the Vedic-Buddhist Goddess of learning, and then, he uttered the words, ‘sisters and brothers of America’. And with these simple words, history of India, and with it, the destiny of crores of people on earth changed forever. The words in themselves could have been just customary, but the spirit that manifested when the young unknown monk from India spoke to them, touched the hearts of the audience who gave a standing ovation. Vedantic humanism, the most universal expression of what decades later Albert Einstein would call the cosmic religious feeling, had arrived on the world stage. And it was this day 124 years ago.
One should be aware of the historic context in which the words were uttered to understand their full impact. India was a colony of Britain. By 1890s, the missionaries and colonialists had relentlessly spread the propaganda which depicted India as a den of murderous superstitions, and had stereotyped Indian religion as the most demeaning of all expressions of religion humanity ever had the misfortune to suffer. And, from that land, a monk addressed all humanity as the ‘sisters and brothers’ – a declaration of universal brotherhood of all humanity.
In that very crisp address of less than 500 words, Swami Vivekananda provided us with certain everlasting frameworks for future dialogues with organised religions and also the need for all humanity to be the custodians of theo-diversity.
He pointed out that the Hindus have shown the world not just tolerance but ‘universal acceptance’: “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.” He went on to point out that this had been demonstrated historically:
The mention of Israelites in India is very interesting. Within a year at Memphis on 17 January 1894, he was delivering a lecture ‘The Destiny of Man’. Here he made an attack on what we today know as anti-Semitism – “For 1,900 years you have been trying to crush the Jews. Why could you not crush them? Echo answers: Ignorance and bigotry can never crush truth." He concluded this lecture by saying: "Let us help, and not destroy."
What happened in the world parliament at Chicago on 11 September, soon gave India the much needed inspiration. Vivekananda became the icon of a resurgent India. The universal Vedantic humanism of Sri Ramakrishna-Vivekananda became the bedrock of the Indian freedom movement and social reform movements. Whether it was women’s liberation or social justice and harmony, one can find behind every positive social reformer in India the inspiration of Swami Vivekananda.
11 September And Tamil Nadu
Swami Vivekananda had a special relation to Tamil Nadu and nurtured in him a special love for the Tamil people and their culture. He always had his hope in the ‘youth of Madras’. At the same time, he repeatedly warned against the fissiparous tendencies that were developing in the form of Aryan-Dravidian race theories. Here, one needs to quote in detail Swami Vivekananda, whose words are today sadly more relevant than even at the time of their utterance:
But the trust Swami Vivekananda had on Tamils was not all in vain. Tamil Nadu produced some of the greatest minds for centuries to come, who carried on the fire lit by Swami Vivekananda.
Subramaniya Bharathi (1882-1921), the great Tamil poet-genius who emphasised equally on national liberation and radical social reforms, is today in Tamil Nadu the face of women liberation, social equality as well as patriotism. He derived his inspiration from Swami Vivekananda. He used the same non-racial framework Swami Vivekananda used in approaching the so-called Aryan problem. Rejecting the racial interpretation of the term, he used the term ‘Arya’ in many of his songs to mean what it has always meant in Indic languages – virtuous.
So he calls Agastya – the great legendary rishi who according to tradition gave Tamil its grammar, as ‘Aryan’ and calls Bharat Mata ‘Arya Rani’. This is in line with traditional Tamil poetry where Shiva Himself is called ‘Aryan’. Bharathi took pains to explain what he meant by the ‘Aryan heritage’ of the nation:
Both Bharathi and Swami Vivekananda sought to remove the pseudo-scientific racial meaning given to the term ‘Arya’ by colonial Indology and pointed out forcefully that the term Arya in traditional Indian context never had a racial meaning. Unfortunately, the world did not heed their advice. And the mischief colonial Indologists played in India revisited Europe in the form of the Nazi plague.
Bharathi is known prominently in Tamil Nadu not only for his patriotic songs but also for his fearless expressions on issues of jati and women’s liberation. Again, his inspiration here came from the Sri Ramakrishna-Vivekananda lineage. He had met Sister Nivedita, the Irish disciple of Swami Vivekananda at Calcutta when he was returning from the Indian National Congress session of 1905. This meeting was a profound and life-changing experience for him. His wife, Chellamma, felt this change in Bharathi firsthand and had described it in detail in her biography of her husband. The granddaughter of Bharathi writes about this transformation:
“Sister Nivedita asked Bharati why he had not brought his wife to the Congress and he apparently answered, “We do not usually bring our wives to meetings; moreover, of what use would it have been to bring her to the Indian Congress”? Nivedita explained to Bharati the greatness of women and the importance of recognizing that women are free beings, like men, and that woman should be treated as the equal of man. At that very moment, Bharati’s vision of a “New Woman” (pudumai penn) was born in his poet’s heart. And who else could this new woman be, but his own wife, the embodiment and personification of his pudumai penn? In this sense, Chellamma became Bharati’s goddess. Chellamma was immediately aware of the profound change that had happened in Bharati. (Source)“
Interestingly prior to this life-changing event, Bharathi, who is today the face of women’s liberation in Tamil Nadu, had even castigated women who were advocating women suffrage in Western countries, points out eminent Tamil writer Dr Lakshmi Subramaniam (Ambai). To this day, it is the imagery of Bharathi’s pudumai penn or new woman which every Tamil-learning child internalises as the self-image for a liberated life journey. Traditional social stagnation and patriarchy had made as feminine virtues an innate fear and shyness. Bharathi sang:
Dogs need to be shy and ever docile;
Intelligence, virtue, Independence so brave
are the virtues women of class nurture.
Bharathi can be considered in a way the Cinderella of modern pan-Indian poetry. Outside Tamil Nadu, he is known mainly through Amar Chitra Katha and the morning hymn of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (Ekatmata Stotra). He sang of science as well as technology. He spoke of the cosmic vision unveiled by science. Sitting in the backwaters of a colonised Asian nation, he was speaking of the whirling galaxies and electrons. He sang of life as a web with no end on both sides. In all these, he saw his own self expanded in all glory. In pure sense of Advaita, he sang of no barrier between himself and all existence. He sang of Krishna as his child, consort and servant. It was on another 11 September, that of 1921, that Subramaniya Bharathi became immortal. He had not seen his fortieth birthday, just like Swami Vivekananda.
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