One hundred years ago there lived a great spiritual figure by the name of Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda was instrumental in bringing the light and wisdom of the East to the hungry seekers of the West.
As a child, he had the nickname was Bile. During his childhood he was very sweet and divine, but also quite mischievous. This did not diminish his divinity. But his parents, especially his mother, sometimes would get puzzled and worry about him.
One day, when he was only five years old, Vivekananda saw in the living room a few Indian hookahs or smoking pipes. One was for the Brahmins, one for the Kshatriyas and one for the Muslims. He tasted each one, and to his surprise discovered that all the hookahs tasted the same.
Alas, he was caught by his own father.
What are you doing, Bile?
Father, I was just examining the smoking pipes. I thought that the one for Brahmins would be better than the one for Kshatriyas, because Brahmins are so great. And the Muslims are so heroic and spirited. So I thought that the Muslim pipe would be special. But I wish to tell you, Father, that they are all the same. No one pipe is superior to another?
How is it that you have started smoking at such a tender age? And what kind of things is a small boy like you saying?
My son, you are too spoiled. You have become too smart. Come here.
The child came to the mother and she took him upstairs to his room and locked the door from the outside.
In two hours time the maid came running to the mother.
Bile's throwing away all his clothes. Everything he has in his room he is throwing out through the window! There are a few beggars below who are grabbing his garments as they fall. And he himself is so happy!
(mother runs upstairs)
What is the matter with you, Bile. Look at expensive clothes you are throwing away!
Mother, we are so rich. We can have whatever we want, whenever we want. But these are poor people. They have nothing. If we do not give to them, then who will give to them? We have enough, more than enough; so my heart wants to give these things away. They need them more than I do.
His mother's heart was full of joy and delight. She embraced her son and shed tears of delight that his heart was so sympathetic, so vast and so all-giving, and that he had so much oneness with the poor and with the Supreme Pilot in all.
Twenty years later, that same little boy was standing in front of thousands of people at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
Ladies and Gentleman, Id like to welcome our next speaker, a poor monk from India, Swami Vivekananda.
Sisters and Brothers of America,
(This opening greeting is pronounced with such love and affection that the audience immediately burst into rapturous applause):
It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.
My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honour of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation. I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: 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.
The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me. Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilisation and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour 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.
After speaking at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda became famous overnight and acquired many friends and admirers. One day, some of these friends and admirers came to ask him many questions about Vedanta and Indian philosophy and spirituality. They were very moved by his answers to their questions. By the time they departed, it was around midnight.
All of a sudden Vivekananda thought of India, his poor India, especially Mother Bengal.
Now I am going to bed. But there are thousands and thousands of people without beds, who will be lying in the street, poverty-stricken, tonight. Here I have got a cosy and most comfortable bed. But once upon a time, I was a sannyasin. I used to roam in the street with no food, nothing. Even now I am a sannyasin. Still, from time to time even today, I have no food or clothes. I am in a destitute condition.
Again, God blesses me with riches and my generous friends keep me at their homes. Right now some friends of mine have given me this beautiful apartment. Indeed, I am in great luxury. In a few minutes, I will go to sleep in a most comfortable bed. And yet so many of my brothers and sisters in Bengal will be living in the street. My heart bleeds for them. I have still not fulfilled my task. I have to help my poor Indian brothers. I have to save their lives, I have to illumine them, I have to awaken their consciousness. There is so much to do, so much to do! Alas, what am I doing here? I need rest, but I will not sleep on the bed. I will sleep on the floor.
He took off his turban, placed it on the floor and passed the night lying down on his long turban. Early the following morning, when the owner of the apartment, who was his friend, came to invite him to breakfast, he saw this great Indian saint, this great Indian hero, lying on the floor.
What is the matter?
Thousands and thousands of my brothers and sisters spend the night in the streets. So how can I dream of spending the night in this most comfortable bed? I can't, I can't, unless and until I have done something for them. It is my bounden duty to serve God in the poor and the needy. So the life of comfort is not for me. The life of selfless service, the life of dedicated, devoted service, is for me. Service is my goal, service is my perfection in life.
(pictures from vivekananda.org photo gallery : over 100 rare photographs of Swami Vivekananda taken at he turn of the last century)