In 1933, CEM Joad, a popular English philosopher, writer, journalist, and broadcaster, published a book with the provocative title, Counter Attack from the East. Both the book and its author are more or less forgotten today. Joad’s book was actually on the second President of India, S Radhakrishnan, whom he considered a good “liaison officer” between the East and the West.
Like Oswald Spengler, author of the two-volume Decline of the West (1918), originally Der Untergang des Abendlandes in German, Joad believed that Western civilisation was on the brink of a moral and material collapse.
According to Joad, Eastern philosophers like Radhakrishnan, whose immensely popular Hibbert lectures in 1929 had made him a household name in London, had much to offer to the West. Actually, this idea that the West was morally and spiritually decadent was quite prevalent during the early decades of the last century. With the decline of colonialism and the devastation wrought by the World Wars, the West had lost much of its lustre, not only in the eyes of the world, but in its own estimation as well.
Swami Vivekananda's message delivered on September 11, 1893, is highly relevant today. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Mahatma Gandhi wrote a scathing critique of the modern West in Hind Swaraj (1909). The sense of civilisational crisis gripping the West is exemplified in one of the greatest English poems of the time, TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). It is no surprise, then, that when the celebrated British historian of ancient India, AL Basham, was asked what was Swami Vivekananda’s greatest contribution, he unhesitatingly referred back to the title of Joad’s book: “Vivekananda will always be remembered in the world’s history because he virtually initiated what the late Dr CEM Joad once called ‘the counter-attack from the East.’”
In nearly 1,000 years, “he was the first Indian religious teacher to make an impression outside India.” We must remember Vivekananda today because it was on 9/11/1893 that he delivered the first of his six spectacular speeches at the World’s Parliament of Religions, Chicago.
“Sisters and Brothers of America,” he famously said, “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.”
The WTC disaster
Vivekananda’s words caused a stir in the audience. He introduced the idea of religious pluralism in Parliament: “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.”
Quoting the Bhagavad Gita, he made a passionate plea to abolish religious intolerance: “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… I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this… may be the death-knell of all fanaticism…”
Of course, 9/11 is also remembered for another “counter attack from the East,” the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City by the Al Qaeda suicide bombers. After hijacking US jetliners, they crashed the doomed planes, full of innocent passengers, not just into the twin towers, but also in the Pentagon.
The collapse of the Twin Towers shook the entire world. (Photo: Reuters)
As it happened, I was in the US then, teaching a class at a small mid-Western university. Walking into my classroom, I heard the dreadful news on the car radio of some campus workmen, whose open van, hastily parked askew, suggested that something terrible had happened.
By the time I reached class, the news was being flashed on TV screens across the world. The university president asked us not to watch or teach, but instead hold a counselling-cum-condolence session. I allowed those who were deeply disturbed or distraught to leave. No one did. Then I asked if anyone had lost loved ones or acquaintances. Two hands went up. We mourned and prayed together, not just for victims and survivors, but for peace on Earth and amity between nations.
Over the coming weeks, I often received hostility, taken for a Muslim, Middle-Eastern person, and foreigner. Also a great deal of sympathy and some support, possibly for the same mistaken reason. The then-US President, George W Bush, still in hiding, asked Americans to go out and shop, which was the best way to defeat the evil designs of terrorists. All the university mail went to a screening centre because of an anthrax scare. People bought rubber gloves and stacked up on groceries. The world changed forever. The US became a different kind of country than I had known as a graduate student.
But 18 years after, one thing is clear. We have to choose between the two 9/11s and their contrasting messages. The one delivered by a Hindu monk in saffron robe in 1893 and the other by jihadi Muslim bombers in 2001. No religion is perfect, but all religions are not the same. The intolerance and fanaticism within each of our religious traditions must be rejected by ourselves and by the rest of the world.
(Courtesy of Mail Today)