The 150th birthday of Swami Vivekananda is being celebrated this month in metro Detroit and around the world. This Sunday, Jan. 19, 2013, at 10 a.m. there will be an event marking his birthday at Troy Community Center in Michigan. Here’s a story written last year about Vivekananda’s connection to metro Detroit.
A message of peace
19th-Century spiritual leader inspires metro Detroiters
By Niraj Warikoo
Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
Published in Detroit Free Press:
Sunday, March 11, 2012
Draped in saffron robes, a 9-foot statue stands in a corner of the Bharatiya Temple in Troy of Swami Vivekananda, the 19th century spiritual leader from India who gave birth to the modern interfaith movement.
It’s a symbol of his continued influence as his 150th birthday is commemorated this year with events in metro Detroit and around the world.
At the Hindu center in Troy, Vivekananda’s message will be discussed today at a lecture, one of several such events the temple is holding to remember the man who introduced Indian philosophy to the West. During his life, Vivekananda lectured often in cities such as Detroit, Boston and New York.
As Hindu practices like yoga, meditation and vegetarianism rise in popularity in America, so does the interest in Vivekananda.A Newsweek writer is working on a biography of Vivekananda that examines his influence on a range of thinkers in the West. In January, the University of Chicago announced it was creating a $1.5-million academic chair in his name.
And with religious tensions rising today, his message of peace and tolerance is needed more than ever, his admirers say.
Vivekananda is most well-known for his speech at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago, where his message of universal brotherhood and diversity was praised. Coretta Scott King, the late wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., called Vivekananda’s talk “the most definitive statement of religious tolerance and interfaith unity in history.”
“Though they were uttered a century ago, Vivekananda’s words ring with a clarion relevance for our times, ” she wrote on the 100th anniversary of the speech.
Vivekananda’s impact also is felt on a personal level for many in metro Detroit.
“He created a democracy among religions, saying that no one religion has any superiority over others, ” said Prasanna Vengadam of Troy. “That was such an original message at the time. He was the first interfaith leader.”
Mahaveer Khetawat, 63, an engineer from Sterling Heights, said he is guided today at work by Vivekananda’s message of acting morally and selflessly.
“One of his main teachings was: Keep your hands on work and your mind on God, ” Khetawat said.
Vivekananda came to Detroit twice, in 1894 and 1896, speaking to standing-room-only audiences in churches, a synagogue, and downtown hotels. He stayed for three weeks as a guest in the home of then-Gov. John J. Bagley, meeting political and social leaders in Detroit. He also was a guest of Sen. Thomas Palmer; both Palmer and Bagley were Unitarians, a group drawn to Vivekananda’s message.
“Every human being would be made better by knowing him, ” wrote Frances Bagley, the wife of the Michigan governor. “I want everyone in America to know Vivekananda….He has given us in America higher ideas of life than we have ever had before.”
On Feb. 14, 1894, Vivekananda spoke to a packed crowd at the Unitarian Church in Detroit.
“His eloquent and graceful manner pleased his listeners…showing approval by outbursts of applause, ” the Free Press wrote. “The Eastern brother is most impressive.”
The Detroit Journal wrote that if Vivekananda “could be induced to remain for a week longer, the largest hall in Detroit would not hold the crowds which would be anxious to hear him….Every seat in the Unitarian church was occupied, and many were compelled to stand.”
The admiration was mutual, as Vivekananda often spoke of his love for the U.S., writing in 1896: “In America alone there is that something in the air which brings out whatever is best in every one.”
Born in Kolkata, India, Vivekananda was taught by another spiritual leader, Ramakrishna. Much of his views were based on ancient Hindu texts such as the Vedas and the Upanishads.
Vivekananda helped revive Hinduism and influenced India’s independence leaders.
Harvard University offered to make him a professor, which he declined. He died in 1902 at age 39.
During his lectures in Detroit, Vivekananda sought to explain Hinduism, telling people, “You are not sinners, you are divine, ” Vengadam said.
On March 15, 1896, Vivekananda spoke at Temple Beth-El in Detroit – Michigan’s first Jewish congregation – telling the crowd that respecting diversity is important. The crowd was so big that “hundreds…had to be turned away, ” reported the News Tribune.
“Unity in variety is the plan of the universe, ” Vivekananda told the crowd. “We must not seek that all of us should think alike….Difference of thought…is the very soul of progress.”
Kul Gauri, a Troy resident and retired dean at Macomb Community College, said: “It is unfortunate that no one of his level is among us today when we desperately need one to understand and resolve conflicts arising out of religion.”
But his message lives on, influencing local leaders such as Padma Kuppa of Troy. A member of the Bharatiya Temple, Kuppa said Vivekananda “motivates my perseverance as a community and interfaith activist.”
Contact Niraj Warikoo: 313-223-4792, email@example.com, @nwarikoo