Swamy Vivekananda’s Appreciation and Assessment of American Women
"His strength and beauty, the grace and dignity of his bearing, the dark light of his eyes, his imposing appearance, and from the moment he began to speak, the splendid music of his rich deep voice enthralled the vast audience.... The thought of this warrior prophet of India left a deep mark upon the United States.” Romain Rolland
As we celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Swami Vivekananda in 2013, India as well as many countries in the world are paying tribute, respects, compliments for his contribution in advancing the Eastern philosophy of life that professed tolerance, divinity, spirituality, plurality, love, peace, universalism, Advaita philosophy, yoga and mutual respect. Swami Vivekananda, with a rare combination of extraordinary intelligence, boundless knowledge,and magnetic personality, arrived in United States in 1893 to attend the Parliament of Religions. No other person had so much influence in shaping the concepts, perceptions, impressions, practices, and life styles of Americans with regard to Hinduism, especially in the areas of Vedanta, yoga, spirituality, and universality of religion. No other person visited so many cities, attended so many churches, lectured in so many academic institutions, influenced so many academicians, attracted so many women, received rousing welcome at the Parliament of Religions, in presenting his faith by saying that he belonged to a religion that taught universal tolerance and acceptance, sheltered Israelites and Zoroastrianswho came as refugees, and never drenched the earth with human blood and destroyed civilizations.
He was brilliant in explaining spirituality by connecting Vedanta and spirituality. He said every soul is divine. According to Vedanta, “men and women are essentially ever pure, ever free, ever illumined Atman, the sexless Self.”The soul gets conditioned to the body and mind depending on whether one is born as either male of female. God is present in every human being, irrespective of religion, status and sex. Every individual has the potential to tap the divine in his soul. Every individual can manifest the divinity. Yoga is nothing but connecting the Supreme Soul to the individual. The concept of Vedanta and spirituality was revolutionary considering the fact that American women at that time did not have voting rights. No wonder that this concept of spirituality attracted more females ever since Swami Vivekananda entered the American scene.
Swami Vivekananda who came to America about six weeks before the commencement of Parliament of Religions encountered several problems. He did not know any body in Chicago, did not know the venue of the Parliament of religions, did not have any credentials, did no know that the registration the Parliament of Religions hadalready completed, and did not know where to stay and eat. It was totally a strange place. He stayed in hotels, visited the Columbian Exposition and other places. As the purse was getting thinner, on the advise of others, he left Chicago for Boston, the city that was cheaper to live. Fortunately, he remembered the address of Kate Sanborn, whom Swami Vivekananda happened to meet in the train while travelling from Vancouver,BC Canada to Chicago. During the three days of travel in the train, Kate Sanborn was attracted and intrigued by his fancy dress and magnetic personality. Being a retired Professor of Literature at Smith College, Kate Smith was impressed by his knowledge, wisdom and universal outlook. She invited him to visit Boston.
Kate Sanborn came to his rescue and hosted him at her house. Here, she introduced a good number of intellectuals and Harvard University professors. Professor John Henry Wright, following four hours of discussion with Swami, impressed with his extraordinary intelligence, knowledge and scholarship. He wrote letters to several influential organizers of Parliament to help him to be a speaker by indicating that, “Here is a man more learned than all our learned professors put together.” He looks at Swami Vivekananda and says: “Asking for your credentials, is like asking the sun about it’s right to shine.”
He returned to Chicago with the recommendation letter; but unfortunately he could not find the organizing committee members. He roamed around the city, slept one night in an empty wagon, begged for food, and was totally exhausted. Finally he slumped against the sidewall on the street, sat and went into meditation. Fortunately, Mrs. Hale, who lived across the street, noticed this unshaven dirty clothed person as a delegate to the Parliament, took him to her house, fed breakfast, brought new clothes and sheltered him. Then, she took him to the office of Parliament of Religion and introduced him to Dr. Burrows, the president of the Parliament. Thus, as providence decreed it, these two ladies were instrumental in helping him during his difficult times in America.
The opening greetings at the Parliament of Religions on September 11, 1893, by Swami Vivekananda, “Sisters and brothers of America”, was received with jubilation and got two to four minutes ovation from nearly seven thousand attendees of the conference. He spoke eloquently about the oldest religion on the earth and about its universality, inclusiveness, tolerance, spirituality and yoga – connecting the Supreme Soul to individual soul. He was applauded frequently after each speech with thunderous clapping and loud screaming. One of the delegates who observed scores of women crossing the benches to come close to him commented by saying that if a young thirty year old man “ can resist that onslaught, (he is) indeed a God.”
Association and Appreciation
There was a mutual respect, attraction, charm and fascination between Swami Vivekananda and American women. It was a strange, inexplicable and subconscious telepathy between them. He mystified the women of America and England with his appearance, demeanor, innocence, voice, colorful silk robe, turban and chanting of Sanskrit slokas.
American women who helped him and became his admirers and devotees included Christina Greenstidel, Emma Calve, Kate Sanborn, Edith Allen, Charlotte Sevier, Josephine MacLeod, Sara Bull, Ellen Hale, Ida Ansell, Mary Hale, Isabelle McKinley, Sara WoodMrs. John Bagley, Sister Christine, and countlessothers. These women belonged to rich and high class with more interest in exploring something new. They provided shelter, food, clothing, companionship, security and other daily necessities. They used to manage his money, organize his travels, and arranged speeches through Lecture Bureau. They used to travel with him to many places and invite many scholars and transcendentalists to hear lectures on Advaita philosophy. He paid due compliments for their services. They promoted him as a Spiritual Leader, proponent of Advaita Philosophy, and greatest speaker endowed with unmatched wisdom. At one time he mentioned that, “They treat me like a kid and escort me to markets and malls. They do every thing; I could not do even a quarter of a quarter of their work.”
In one of his letters written from Chicago where he participated in the Parliament Of World Religions, he mentioned that, “Nowhere in the world are women like those of this country. How pure, independent, self-relying and kind hearted! It is the women who are the life and soul of the country. All learning and culture centered in this country … There are thousands of women here whose minds are as pure and as white as snow of this country”. He wrote numerous letters to many of his friends in India describing their virtues and showing great admiration.
He praised American mothers’ purity of character, observed theirunselfish love for their children, described them as “pure as the icicle on Diana's temple” and portrayed them as possessing much culture, education, and spirituality in the highest sense! He wrote: 'Nowhere in the world are women like those of this country. How pure, independent, self-relying, and kind-hearted! It is the women who are the life and soul of this country. All learning and culture are centered in them.'
In a letter written to the Maharaja of Khetri of Rajasthan in 1894, Swami Vivekananda’s admiration for American women was superb and splendid.
“American women! A hundred lives would not be sufficient to pay my deep debt of gratitude to you! Last year I came to this country in summer, a wandering preacher of a far distant country, without name, fame, wealth, or learning to recommend me — friendless, helpless, almost in a state of destitution; and American women befriended me, gave me shelter and food, took me to their homes, and treated me as their own son, their own brother. They stood as my friends even when their own priests were trying to persuade them to give up the 'dangerous heathen' — even when, day after day, their best friends had told them not to stand by this 'unknown foreigner, maybe of dangerous character.' But they are better judges of character and soul — for it is the pure mirror that catches the reflection.
American women! A hundred lives would not be sufficient to pay my deep debt of gratitude to you! I have not words enough to express my gratitude to you. ‘The Oriental hyperbole" alone expresses the depth of Oriental gratitude — ‘f the Indian Ocean were an inkstand, the highest mountain of the Himalaya the pen, the earth the scroll and time itself the writer’ still it will not express my gratitude toyou!”
Critical of American Women
In spite of his all praise for their hospitality, caring and purity of heart, he was also critical of American women about their obsession with their physique, beauty and efforts to look young. Although they were intelligent, they were not serious, steady and sincere. Boston ladies received the harshest criticism: "Of all, Boston is the worst. There the women are all faddists, fickle, merely bent on following something new and strange.”
He observed that theywent to the extent of torturing their bodies “by squeezing their waist, making their spine crooked, and thus displacing their liver and spleen and disfiguring their form. They suffer the torment of death to look shapely in appearance, and added to that is the burden of dress, over which they have to show their features to the best of their advantage. Their Western dress is, however, more suited for work. With the exception of the dress worn in society by the ladies of the wealthy classes, the dress of the women in general is ugly. The Sari of Indian women, and the Choga, Chapman and turban of our men defy comparison as regards beauty in dress.”
Swami Vivekananda was also very critical of church going women. After he returned to India from USA in 1897, one of the representatives of “The Hindu” daily newspaper met him in the train that was going from Chingleput Station to Madras, had a brief interview about his experience of visiting USA:
“What was your first experience of America, Swamiji?"
"From first to last it was very good. With the exception of the missionaries and 'Church- women’. The Americans are most hospitable, kind-hearted, generous, and good-natured."
"Who are these 'Church-women' that you speak of, Swamiji?"
"When the woman tries her best to find a husband, she goes to all the fashionable sea-side resorts and tries all sorts of tricks to catch a man. When she fails in her attempts, she becomes, what they call in America, an 'old maid’ and joins the Church. Some of them become very 'Churchy.” These 'Church-women' are awful fanatics.”
They are under the thumb of the priests there. Between them and the priests they make hell of earth and make a mess of religion. With the exception of these, the Americans are a very good people. They loved me so much, and I love them a great deal. I felt as if I was one of them."
Role of Woman in East and West
Swami Vivekananda compared the status of women and the roles played in India and USA. In India, the mother is respected, honored, glorified and worshipped.She is elevated to a higher pedestal. Mother is the one who keeps the child in her womb for nine months, and she would “give me twenty times her life, if I had need?” Her love to the child never dies, even if the child is wicked. She is marvelous, unselfish, all suffering and ever forgiving. Mother rules the family. Wife’s role is secondary.
In the West, the wife rules the house. “If a mother comes into a Western home, she has to be subordinate to the wife; to the wife belongs the home.” In comparison, wife goes to the divorce court the moment she is treated little badly. He did not find the kind of respect and honor mothers are expected of. In fact he said that, “ I will not find her in your country. I have not found the son who thinks mother is first.”
The role of woman was discussed with the News reporter from Detroit:
Reporter: "Well, will you tell us about your women, their customs and education, and the position they hold in the family?"
“Now, the ideal woman in India is the mother, the mother first, and the mother last. The word woman calls up to the mind of the Hindu, motherhood; and God is called Mother. As children, every day, when we are boys, we have to go early in the morning with a little cup of water and place it before the mother, and mother dips her toe into it and we drink it.
In the West, the woman is wife. The idea of womanhood is concentrated there — as the wife. To the ordinary man in India, the whole force of womanhood is concentrated in motherhood. In the Western home, the wife rules. In an Indian home, the mother rules. If a mother comes into a Western home, she has to be subordinate to the wife; to the wife belongs the home. A mother always lives in our homes: the wife must be subordinate to her. See all the difference of ideas.”
Message that attracted American Woman.
As mentioned earlier that American women provided shelter, food, clothes, and daily needs; arranged his travels to different cities, organized lecture tours, introduced to vast number of scholars and scientists; managed his money matters, and treated him as their kid, son. They came to the rescue when he faced numerous hurdles. What attracted American women to Swami Vivekananda. Is it just his charming personality, fancy clothes, his demeanor or his profound teachings of the eternal truth?
Many American women considered their association as theirgood fortune and treated him as a noble being, a saint, a philosopher, teacher, family member and a true friend. Some considered him to be a man who “walked with God.” Madam Calveobserved: “His influence upon my spiritual life was profound. He opened up new horizons before me; enlarging and vivifying my religious ideas and ideals; teaching me a broader understanding of truth. My soul will bear him eternal gratitude.”
Let us look at the essence of the message of Swami Vivekananda that opened up the horizon for American women, unlocked their hidden divine nature and tapped their inner spiritual strength. Swami Vivekananda clearly stated his mission in no uncertain terms as we gleam through his lectures.
Swami Vivekananda said, “I came here to represent a philosophy of India, which is called the Vedanta philosophy… the Vedanta claims, that man is divine.” The concept of divinity is new and revolutionary for America. Every thing that is seen and unseen is the outcome of the divine. Every man is potentially divine. We are all different waves coming out of the infinite ocean. That means every man and woman has infinite power, knowledge, strength, and bliss. It is every human being’s birthright. Every body should be encouraged to tap that divinity that is within.
Soon he realized the need to emphasize the significance of spirituality that is part of Vedanta. In one of his letters written to Haripada Mitra, he wrote, “As regards to spirituality, the Americans are far inferior to us but their society is far superior to ours. We will teach them our spirituality and assimilate what is best in their society.” Spirituality is considered the backbone of India. Our sacred land is the birthplace of spiritual giants and the land of renunciation. Every nation is looking toward India for spiritual ideals enshrined in the scriptures.
In his first speech delivered at Parliament of Religions, he announced that it is time to eradicate sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, and fanaticism because they have filled the earth with violence, drenched it with human blood, destroyed civilizations and sent the whole nations to despair. Human society would be far more advanced than it is now, if it is not for this narrow mindedness. But their time has cometo blow a death knell for these narrow ideologues.
He also emphasized the importance of peaceful coexistence, tolerance and universality of Hinduism. He stated that, “If I ask myself what has been the cause of India's greatness, I answer, because we have never conquered … it is not at all a conquering religion. To my mind that is the argument why our religion is truer than any other religion, because it never conquered, because it never shed blood, because its mouth always shed on all, words of blessing, of peace, words of love and sympathy.”
It is the responsibility of all Hindus and those who care for the mutual coexistence to heed the all-embracing, inclusive and peaceful message of Swami Vivekananda. If human race has to escape from destruction, terror, violence, deception, and denunciation, all nations should strive toward Indian spirituality because as Swami Vivekananda stated, “India alone has that light … in the teaching of the glories of the spirit of real religion— of the highest spiritual truth.” India has gift that benefits the humanity, a gift of religion, philosophy, wisdom and spirituality. “Wisdom and philosophy do not want to be carried on floods of blood. Wisdom and philosophy do not march upon bleeding human bodies, do not march with violence but come on the wings of peace and love, and that has always been so.”
Prakasarao V Velagapudi, PhD
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