Vivekananda wanted to wash Jesus’ feet with his blood. Even invited Christian missionaries to India
Story by Govind Krishnan V
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Hindu society was troubled by Christian missionaries converting the lower castes, and Christianity, especially in its missionary form, came increasingly to be viewed as both an imperialistic and an alien presence. Reaction from Hindu revivalists like Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824–83) took the form of invective and denigration of Christian beliefs and of Jesus Christ. In America, Vivekananda was often questioned on the Hindu attitude towards the Christian faith.
Responding to an audience in America, Vivekananda once proclaimed: ‘We want missionaries of Christ. Let such come to India by the hundreds and thousands. Bring Christ’s life to us and let it permeate the very core of society. Let him be preached in every village and corner of India.’ Vivekananda was not talking about the Anglo-American missionary enterprise which sought to convert ‘heathen souls’ to the Christian religion. He had in mind the God intoxicated religion of the renunciate Christ, who as he was often fond of saying, had not a place on earth to lay his head.
Following in the footsteps of his guru Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Vivekananda developed a deep devotion to Christ, whom, along with Buddha, he revered as the greatest men to have walked the earth. And he was as good as his word. On his return to India, he arranged public receptions for Dr Barrows, a Christian preacher he had met at the Parliament of Religions. He wrote to newspapers entreating Hindus to welcome Barrows and his teaching. Vivekananda wrote in the Indian Mirror:
Moreover, he comes to us in the sacred name of religion, in the name of one of the great teachers of mankind, and I am sure his exposition of the system of the Prophet of Nazareth would be extremely liberal and elevating. The Christ power this man intends to bring to India is not the intolerant, dominant, superior, with heart full of contempt for everything else but its own self, but of a brother who craves for a brother’s place as a co-worker of the various powers, already working in India.
For Vivekananda, Christianity formed a beautiful part of the fabric of the universal religious experience of mankind. He often used the analogy of music, of a grand orchestra which comprised the universal harmony of all religions. And in this orchestra, the religion of Christ sounded a cadence which he not only related to personally but which was an integral part of his spiritual life. Vivekananda’s personal relationship with Christianity extended beyond his devotion to the figures of the Christ and the Virgin Mary. It took in the entire history of Christendom, the early churches of Rome, the medieval monasteries with their ascetic monks, the Gothic architecture of European churches, the beauty of the Catholic mass and the sacrament, the spiritual giants among Catholic saints, the millennia of spiritual seeking by layman and priest, novice and monk. The presence or reminder of any of these could bring forth from him an outpouring of intense emotion, or a mood of spiritual contemplation.
To a woman who was surprised on seeing his devotion to Christ, the leader of a religion different from his own, he responded: ‘Madame, had I lived in Palestine in the days of Jesus of Nazareth, I would have washed his feet, not with tears, but with my heart’s blood.’ In a lecture delivered on ‘Christ the messenger’ to a Los Angeles audience, he tried to give a picture of the spiritual power he thought was manifested in Jesus.
The three years of his ministry were like one compressed, concentrated age, which it has taken nineteen hundred years to unfold, and who knows how much longer it will yet take! Little men like you and me are simply the recipients of just a little energy. A few minutes, a few hours, a few years at best, are enough to spend it all, to stretch it out, as it were, to its fullest strength, and then we are gone forever. But mark this giant that came; centuries and ages pass, yet the energy that he left upon the world is not yet stretched, nor yet expended to its full. It goes on adding new vigour as the ages roll on.
Ramakrishna had considered Christ to be a divine incarnation, and while Vivekananda was apt to consider the historical Jesus an enlightened soul, his faith in Christ as a form of the one all-powerful God accompanied him throughout his life and sustained him. We have already recorded the trials and misfortunes through which Vivekananda passed in his attempt to become a delegate at the World’s Parliament of Religions. As late as three weeks before the start of the Parliament, Vivekananda had no idea of how to get in touch with the Parliament’s organizers, or how to convince them to overlook his lack of credentials and the expiry of the deadline for registering as a delegate. As was the sanyasi’s wont, he had given it all up to God’s will. With little money, and no conceivable prospects of fulfilling his mission, he still trusted in the divine will to protect him. ‘I am here amongst the children of the Son of Mary, and Lord Jesus will help me,’ he wrote to a disciple.
It is not just that Vivekananda embraced Christianity within his catholic spiritual vision. Christianity also played a role in moulding Vivekananda’s spiritual life. We saw how for five years he travelled the length of the country, by foot and train, eating only food that was offered to him as alms. He carried no money and no possessions. His only travelling companions were a kamandalu, a walking staff, and two books meant as spiritual guides. One was the Bhagavad Gita, the other was The Imitation of Christ.
The Imitation of Christ is a book of Christian mysticism, believed to be authored by Thomas à Kempis, a medieval Christian monk. Its impact on Vivekananda was profound. During his years at the Baranagar math, he used the book as a source for instructions for the sanyasis to follow in their spiritual practice. At around the same time, he translated the book into Bengali for a Bengali periodical, rendering the name as ‘Ishanusarana’. The depth of the impression the book left on Vivekananda’s mind can be gleaned from his preface to the translation:
The Imitation of Christ is a cherished treasure of the Christian world. This great book was written by a Roman Catholic monk. ‘Written’, perhaps, is not the proper word. It would be more appropriate to say that each letter of the book is marked deep with the heart’s blood of the great soul who had renounced all for his love of Christ. That great soul whose words, living and burning, have cast such a spell for the last four hundred years over the hearts of myriads of men and women; whose influence today remains as strong as ever and is destined to endure for all time to come; before whose genius and Sadhana (spiritual effort) hundreds of crowned heads have bent down in reverence; and before whose matchless purity the jarring sects of Christendom, whose name is legion, have sunk their differences of centuries in common veneration to a common principle—that great soul, strange to say, has not thought fit to put his name to a book such as this. Yet there is nothing strange here after all, for why should he? Is it possible for one who totally renounced all earthly joys and despised the desire for the bauble fame as so much dirt and filth—is it possible for such a soul to care for that paltry thing, a mere author’s name?…
All wise men think alike. The reader, while reading this book, will hear the echo of the Bhagavad-Gita over and over again. Like the Bhagavad-Gita it says, ‘Give up all Dharmas and follow Me’. The spirit of humility, the panting of the distressed soul, the best expression of Dasya Bhakti (devotion as a servant) will be found imprinted on every line of this great book and the reader’s heart will be profoundly stirred by the author’s thoughts of burning renunciation, marvellous surrender, and deep sense of dependence on the will of God. To those of my countrymen, who under the influence of blind bigotry may seek to belittle this book because it is the work of a Christian…the teachings of Siddha Purushas (perfected souls) have a probative force…. If in ancient times Greek astronomers like Yavanacharya could have been so highly esteemed by our Aryan ancestors, then it is incredible that this work of the lion of devotees will fail to be appreciated by my countrymen.
Vivekananda also seemed to have had a deep interest in Christian theology and church history, topics which are often arcane even for devout lay Christians. During his wanderings through India in search of spiritual knowledge, Vivekananda reached Belgaum (today in Karnataka) towards the end of 1892. From there he decided to go to Goa, then a Portuguese colony, where there were rumoured to be old Latin texts and religious literature which were not to be found anywhere else in India. A friend from Belgaum arranged an introduction to a Sanskrit scholar who lived in Margao, Goa. Through him, Vivekananda came into contact with a Christian lawyer who, impressed with Vivekananda’s knowledge and interest in the Christian scriptures, made arrangements for Vivekananda to stay in the Rachol seminary, and study the manuscripts in the library. The seminary at Rachol was first established as a college by Jesuits in 1610. It passed into diocesan hands and was turned into a seminary after the Portuguese authorities expelled the Jesuits from Goa in the mid eighteenth century. Vivekananda was presumably interested in the Latin texts the Jesuit scholars had left behind. He spent three days reading manuscripts in the library and discussing theology with the professors and students at the seminary. His stay generated such excitement that word spread soon and clergymen from all over Goa came to see Vivekananda and converse with him during the remainder of his time there. Swami Vivekananda’s visit to Rachol seminary is still remembered there: Vivekananda’s portrait is mounted prominently at the Rachol library. On the hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of Vivekananda’s Chicago speech, the Rachol seminary organized a lecture to commemorate the event.
Vivekananda wanted to wash Jesus’ feet with his blood. Even invited Christian missionaries to India© Provided by ThePrint
This excerpt from Govind Krishnan V’s ‘Vivekananda: The Philosopher of Freedom’ has been published with permission from Aleph Book Company.