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Celebrating Swami Vivekananda’s 150th Birth Anniversary

by Philip Goldberg

Visitors exiting the Art Institute of Chicago on Michigan Avenue are often perplexed by the street sign that reads Swami Vivekananda Way. What is it doing there? Who is this swami, and why does he deserve an honorary street name like Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Hefner and other Chicago legends? Most Americans would not have a clue, but interfaith activists do, and Hindus do, and a great many yoga practitioners and students of Eastern philosophy do, and everyone in India certainly does. And this year, millions more will learn why Vivekananda remains a revered figure more than a century after his passing. January 12th was the 150th anniversary of his birth, and celebrations and tributes will be held all year throughout India and much of the West.

The leading disciple of the legendary 19th century saint, Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda came to the U.S. in 1893 for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a 17-day festival in the midst of a huge world’s fair called the Columbian Exposition. He was an exotic sight in his orange robes and turban; very few Americans had even met a Jew or a Muslim at the time, much less a Hindu monk. Against all odds, the swami became an instant sensation, not as some carnival attraction but as a fresh, erudite voice that spoke with authority, in impeccable English, about his own tradition, religious harmony and the universal truths at the unseen depths of all religions.

He quickly encountered two types of Americans that are familiar to us all today: Christian supremacists who denounced him as a dangerous heathen preaching false religion; and open-minded, rational, spiritual seekers, who found his message and his demeanor irresistible. He was, in a sense, the Jackie Robinson of spirituality, a bold and talented figure shattering widespread misconceptions and biases. Through word of mouth and adulatory press coverage, he became such a superstar that extra talks had to be scheduled for him to accommodate the crowds that flooded the amphitheater in the building that would later become the Art Institute. Hence, the location of Swami Vivekananda Way.

Because he was in demand on the lecture circuit, he remained in America longer than anticipated: more than three years in two separate trips. He passed away in India in 1902, and, like Mozart, Gershwin, and other rare shooting stars who never reached the age of 40, he produced a remarkable legacy in his few productive years.

In voluminous writings, some of which were converted from his numerous lectures, he articulated for the modern age the essential teachings of Vedanta, the philosophical system that stems primarily from the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. His four slim books on the principal pathways of Yoga – karma (selfless action), bhakti (devotion), jnana (intellectual discernment), and raja (meditation and spiritual practice) — became the authoritative descriptions of those categories, and to a large extent they remain so in today’s yoga-saturated world because they set the tone for much of the subsequent commentary on the subject.

In America, Vivekananda’s most enduring impact may be the organization he created to perpetuate his work. The Vedanta Society, which eventually established centers in most major U.S. cities, was the place for seekers interested in Hinduism, Indian philosophy, and yogic meditation in the early part of the 20th century. Through its publications and the swamis who came from India to run the centers, it was the leading voice for what the title of one of its widely read anthologies called “Vedanta for the Western World.” A large percentage of the students drawn to later gurus, such as Paramahansa Yogananda and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who was also born on Jan. 12), were primed by the Vivekananda lineage. In mid-century Vedanta Society swamis mentored some of the most prominent thinkers and writers in American history. If you’ve had transformative moments reading Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley or Huston Smith, or if you identified with the eccentric spirituality of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family, you were touched by Vivekananda whether you realized it or not.

That 1893 gathering of religious leaders would probably not even be remembered if the token Hindu hadn’t ignited such a fervent response. Instead, it launched the modern interfaith movement and catalyzed an East-to-West transmission that has reshaped America’s spiritual landscape. For those reasons and more, you will be hearing about Swami Vivekananda a great deal in the coming year, and so will people 150 years from now.

Philip Goldberg is an Interfaith Minister, Spiritual Coach, Public Speaker, and author of ‘American Veda: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West’ 

Vivekananda resurrected: A 3-D recreation of 1893′s Parliament of Religions

As part of 150th Birth Anniversary Celebrations of Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India and Ramakrishna Mission, New Delhi has recently released a new 3D Movie “9/11 – The Awakening” . This short 3D Movie is about Swami Vivekananda’s historic speech “Sisters and Brothers of America” delivered at Parliament of Religions in Chicago on September 11th, 1893. The movie portrays Swami Vivekananda’s trip to the west, his visit to 1893 World’s Columbian Expo and his Chicago address at Parliament of Religions (Art Institute) in 1893.

9/11: The Awakening – a Trailer from the Vivekananda House:

The entire Chicago Expo has been re-created based on 1893 Chicago Archive Maps and a virtual setup of the Parliament of Religions stage with an audience of 7000 members has been built. The Empress of India ship that Vivekananda undertook during his journey to the West has also been re-created.

A realistic 3D Model of Swami Vivekananda with real skin shaders has been created and improvised based only on his photographs in the absence of any video reference of Vivekananda. Only a few Hollywood-animated movies like Polar Express (2004), Beowoulf (2007) have attempted realistic models for living personalities, but for Vivekananda it makes it all the more challenging since a 3-D body scan cannot be performed (as he is not alive). To create smoother animation for the 3-D movie, Motion capture has been performed with an actor playing Vivekananda’s role.

Monastic members of Ramakrishna Mission, Delhi and Ramakrishna Math, Chennai worked with GISR (Global Institute for Stereo Vision and Research) team to make the movie.

The movie is currently screened at the 3D Theatre in Vivekananda House, Chennai and Ramakrishna Mission, Delhi.

For more info on the 3D Movie, please visit www.vivekananda3d.org (Please use Google Chrome/Safari/Firefox to access the site

Web: www.chennaimath.org

Web: www.vivekanandahouse.org

 


Art Installation References 9/11, First Parliament

Kallat’s installation at the Art Institute of Chicago

Kallat’s installation at the Art Institute of Chicago

Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat’s site-specific installation on the Art Institute’s grand staircase considers the events of September 11, 2001 in light of September 11, 1893, when Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda’s landmark speech about global religious tolerance was delivered at the First World Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, just feet away inside the museum’s auditorium. The force of visual impact in the artist’s installation keeps its commentary on the regression of religious tolerance and the global rise of fanaticism from feeling secondhand or pious. Kallat converts the entirety of Vivekananda’s speech into a permanent LED display that takes up both rises of the grand staircase, a site previously mined by artist Daniel Buren. It’s surprising how strongly Kallat’s piece resonates with the permanent collection objects surrounding it; the text reflects off the windows of the Buddhist art gallery on the first floor and draws attention to the great divide between this tradition and the Impressionists on the other side of the stairs. Kallat’s choice to reference the events of 9/11 with the colors of the Department of Homeland Security’s alert system is an easy symbolic gesture of terror’s infection on speech that’s nonetheless usefully confrontational. (Monica Westin)

read the full review on newcity.com