On July 4, 1902, before he reached the age of 40, Swami Vivekananda, India’s cyclonic monk, passed into the great beyond at Belur Math, on the banks of the Ganga. He was not yet forty.
Vivekananda had made his spectacular debut at the World’s Parliament of Religions on September 11, 1893. His triumphant return to India in January 1897 marked, many would agree, a turning point in India’s modernisation and cultural renaissance.
Touring the length and breadth of the land, he infused a new spirit of self-confidence and hope in a colonised continent. The monastery and temple where he breathed his last had been established by him on the opposite bank of the Dakshineswar Kali temple, in which his master, Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) had lived most of his life, in a small room.
The question often asked is why Vivekananda chose this particular day to leave the world. His biographers record that everything about his demeanour in his last days was “deliberate and significant.”
A week or so before his death, he asked for the almanac, poring over it intently from time to time. Three days before the end, he even pointed to a specific spot where he wished his body to be consigned to the flames.
America's Independence Day
July 4, as we know, is celebrated as the Independence Day of the United States of America. The first modern democracy in the world was established as a republic on this day.
Two days earlier, on July 2, the Continental Congress had announced the independence of union of the 13 colonies from the British Crown and its king, George III. We know that the significance of this date could not be lost on Vivekananda because of his close connection with the US, which not only welcomed him and gave him worldwide renown, but also helped greatly in the spread of his life-affirming ideas.
But there is another interesting fact that proves this strong affinity. During a trip to the Himalayas with his group of Western disciples in 1898, Vivekananda actually wrote a poem called “To the Fourth of July.”
After making an arduous journey to Srinagar, Kashmir, traversing over 300 kilometres up the mountains by horse-drawn carts, the Swami’s party settled in comfortable dungas or houseboats on the picturesque Dal Lake.
The group consisted of three Americans, Sara Chapman Bull, Josephine McLeod, and Mrs. Paterson, the US Consul General’s wife, in addition to Vivekananda’s Anglo-Irish disciple, Margaret Noble, better known later as Sister Nivedita. Vivekananda planned a surprise July 4 celebration by asking a local tailor to rustle up a replica of the American flag.
Stars and stripes in Srinagar
The stars and stripes, crudely and hurriedly stitched together, were pinned, with overhanging branches of evergreens, to the head of dining room houseboat. A tea party was arranged during which the Swami read out a poem specially composed for the occasion.
The 38 line ode not only celebrates American’s commitment to liberty, but India’s longing for the final freedom, which is much more spiritual than material:
A welcome new to thee, today,
O Sun! Today thou sheddest Liberty!
Bethink thee how the world did wait,
And search for thee, through time and clime.
Some gave up home and love of friends,
And went in quest of thee, self-banished,
Through dreary oceans, through primeval forests,
Each step a struggle for their life or death;
Then came the day when work bore fruit,
And worship, love, and sacrifice,
Fulfilled, accepted, and complete.
Addressed to the sun of freedom, the poem wishes for freedom from injustice and bondage for all of suffering humanity, till the light of liberty shines like “high noon” and “o’erspreads the world.”
Vivekananda prays that every land will one day reflect the glorious light of freedom and, their shackles broken, all “men and women, with uplifted head” will feel their lives renewed “in springing joy.”
Beyond politics and diplomacy, Vivekananda’s passionate advocacy of liberty as the necessary prerequisite of human flourishing is noteworthy even to this day.
That the poem was composed in Kashmir, which the Swami loved so much, must also not be forgotten. For it was also here, in the houseboats in Srinagar that later in July 1898, Vivekananda wrote the poem, “To the Awakened India”:
Once more awake!
For sleep it was, not death, to bring thee life
Anew, and rest to lotus-eyes for visions
Daring yet. The world in need awaits, O Truth!
No death for thee!
Vivekananda believed India’s revival and renaissance was not for itself alone, but for the whole world. Indeed, despite its downfall, India remained the awakener of higher conscious.
Read together, these two poems composed in July 1898 presage Vivekananda’s plan not only for India’s regeneration but for an Indo-US material and spiritual partnership, whose deepening and unfolding we are still in the midst of.
It is, perhaps, no surprise, then, that the 119th death anniversary of patriot-saint of new India coincides with the 245th birthday of the United States of America.