On September 11 of this year, the sixth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, I could not relate to the way the media rehashed the tragedy. There were accusations of blame and remembrances of loss. These stories only reinforced the separateness that many experienced after the tragedy. Wasn’t this a time to think about peace and unity, no matter how challenging this was?
I searched for some way to deal with this occasion in a way that made sense. Then, I remembered Swami Vivekananda and his message.
On September 11, 1893, Swami Vivekananda spoke before the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago and talked about universal tolerance.
After his famous opening remark, “Sisters and Brothers of America,” he concluded his speech with the following—”Sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful Earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilization, and sent whole nations to despair…But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”
To the day, 108 years later, on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was bombed and lives were lost in the name of bigotry. Even with the passage of time, we have not realized his dream of universal brotherhood. However, working towards this goal is our only hope. It is Vivekananda’s message of tolerance that needs to be highlighted.
In 1897, after Vivekananda returned to India from the United States, he started the Ramakrishna Mission. The essence of its faith was the establishment of brotherhood among different religions.
I have felt connected to Vivekananda and his message of tolerance since the time my wife and I lived in India for two years in the late 1990s. I still get the shivers when I remember our visit to a small ancient temple on the outskirts of Almora where a bronze plaque said that he had meditated at that very spot. There were no people nearby, so my wife and I sat and meditated on the low stone wall encircling the temple. I still remember the calm feeling I had there. This experience left a lasting impression, and I tried to learn more about Vivekananda for the remainder of my stay in India. I visited several centers of the Ramakrishna Mission, and bought books about Vivekananda and his guru, Ramakrishna. Just before returning home to California, we visited Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the Indian continent. The highlight of this trip was seeing the little island where Vivekananda meditated for three days after swimming through shark-infested waters. This had been the final step he took before he decided to travel to America to attend the World Parliament of Religions.
I returned to California and didn’t dwell much on Vivekananda until recently. At my bedside is a bookcase where books that I have mentally labeled as “important” reside. I haven’t read some in years, but they did make a deep impression on me when I read them first, so they continue to be by my bedside, waiting for me to pick them up and read again. The book that I’d bought at the Ramakrishna Mission in India struck me as something to be read again. It was entitled VivekanandaVivekananda: The Man and His Message, and was written by Romain Rolland. I read the book and deeply admired the way Vivekananda had led a life that was true to his core values.
In the book Vivekananda talks about the inherent oneness between human beings and says, “Where is there any more misery for him who sees this Oneness in the Universe, the Oneness of llfe, Oneness of everything? This separation between man and man, man and woman, man and child, nation from nation, earth from moon, moon from sun, this separation between atom and atom, is the cause really of all this misery, and the Vedanta says this separation does not exist; it is not real. It is merely apparent, on the surface. In the heart of things there is unity between man and man, women and children, races and races, high and low, rich and poor, the Gods and man: all are One, and animals too if you go deep enough, and he who has attained to that has no more delusions.”
Through the enlightenment gained by leading a rigorous ascetic life, he experienced the Unity of Man. He sacrificed a monk’s life of solitude which he truly loved, and set out to help mankind by spreading the wisdom of his experiences in the West, and helped the poor and downtrodden in India. I felt inspired by his humanity.
I had finished reading the book and was reveling in its message when I read the following horoscope in my local paper, dated June 21, 2007: “VIRGO—There has been a certain solitude in your life these past couple of years. You’ve been working unobserved, tending to a sorrow and attempting to find peace. It would be good to study the lives of saints. Choose one to research and write about. This will ease your isolation and the religious and spiritual energies contacted will soothe your spirit.”
I really didn’t think that I was feeling that bad! Still, there was some truth in it that caught my attention. I consider myself a humanist. I try to connect with my fellow human beings, and live life in a way that affirms my belief that I am part of the oneness in the universe. Drawing from a Vedantic Hindu perspective, Vivekananda put into action his own set of core beliefs. When naysayers challenged him, he was a warrior in the best sense of that word. He also dared those around him to live as big a life as they could. I believe in the importance of models in our lives, and also believe that we should strive to be examples of what we regard as important and true.
Remembering Vivekananda and his message was an antidote to the sense of being alone, which the anniversary of 9/11 had caused. I realized that I wasn’t alone. I meditated on the things that I value, and made a point of getting together with people that I love, making the connections that enrich and help me to be a conscious human.
That little book is still by my bedside. Every time I read a portion of the book, I learn from Vivekananda and I feel supported in my desire to live my beliefs. I know that we cannot move beyond the tragedy of 9/11 until we embrace the idea that we are all one and we should work towards reconciliation with our enemies, remembering that they are indeed fellow human beings to be loved, not hated. We need to pay tribute to Vivekananda by living our lives following his dictum—”the attempt to remove evil from the world by killing a thousand evil doers only adds to the evil in the world.”
Joel Wallock is a mediator who lives in Aptos, California. He believes that wisdom learnt from ancient Hindu traditions has great value toda