Swami Vivekananda: An orator par excellence JAYESH SURISETTI
The time was 6 hours, 33 minutes and 33 seconds, a few minutes before sunrise. It was the 12th of January, 1863, Monday. The whole city of Kolkata was gearing up to celebrate the last day of Poush or Makar Sankranti. The chilly breeze of Kolkata’s winters brought good news to the ears of Vishwanath Datta and his wife, Bhuvaneswari Devi. Both of them were celebrating the happiest moment of their life as they got the son they had been long yearning for. They named the child Narendranath, which means King of kings. Little did they know that the baby nestled in their hands was destined to vindicate the name they had given to him. Effective oratory has always held man in thrall since the dawn of civilization. In third century B.C. the Athenian orator and statesman Demosthenes with his stirring speeches organized a unified resistance to Philip – II of Macedonia. Who can forget these lines immortalized by Shakespeare? “Friends, Romans and Countrymen, lend me your ears…..” Anthony, in one of the most compelling orations in the history of human kind, unmasked the traitors who had murdered Caesar and galvanized the Romans into action. Modern times too have seen great orators. Hitler and Gandhi have been very powerful speakers.
However, there were some major differences. Hitler united an entire nation fuelling sentiments of Nazi pride, supremacy, xenophobia and unabashed jingoism. Gandhi too brought people together, but his call was based on truth and non-violence. Hitler relied on propaganda, Gandhi on communication, based on peace, truth and trust. That is the reason Hitler’s triumph was short-lived while Gandhi’s is eternal. John F. Kennedy, the charismatic American president was a powerful speaker. “And so my fellow Americans…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world….ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the Freedom of Man.” This speech of the President will continue to inspire generations of ‘world citizens’. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today…..” These potent words of Martin Luther King Jr. mesmerized an entire race and gave a sense of pride and unity to the black community of North America.
Effective orators and public speakers have known to change the course of history since time immemorial. One such speaker is Swami Vivekananda. “Sister and Brothers of America!” so were the audience addressed by one of the delegates to the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago more than a century ago. The address did indeed strike a chord among those who got used to the familiar, hackneyed, “Ladies and Gentlemen!” At one stroke the speaker embraced the entire assembly in what is called Vasudeva Kutumbakam. For Swami Vivekananda, all human beings, be they Hindus, Christians, Muslims’ or Buddhists, were part of one family.
Vivekananda’s oration set every member of the august audience thinking about the incomprehensible sweep of religion. Of all the speakers at Chicago, Swami Vivekananda made the most durable impact on the audience. It was the beginning of a long journey during which the great Indian spiritual leader familiarized the people of America with all the subtle nuances of Vedanta and Indian thought. Swami Vivekananda’s oratory skills are legendary. His flaming burning words roused us from the stupor and slumber in which we were snoring. He was such a vibrant man of energy that the Western Press saluted him as a “cyclonic Hindu”, “warrior monk” etc. It is common knowledge that his opening speech at the Parliament of World Religions, Chicago has been a landmark oral performance in human history. But what makes the revered Swami such an effective speaker? To answer the question, one must look to different parameters which pertain to public speaking and oratory. The following are such parameters: 1. Capturing audience 2. Clarity of thought and meaning 3. Impressive and convincing 4. Action provoking 5. Diction 6. Memory 7. Platform presence and personality
1. Capturing audience – Swami Vivekananda was a master at capturing the audience’s attention. Whenever Swami spoke in public, the audience listened in rapt attention. The audience was captivated by Swami’s talks to such an extent that at Parliament of World Religions, Swami was always asked to speak at the end. If at any point of time too many people started leaving the event, a simple announcement that Swamiji will be speaking later on was enough to make them sit back down. People waited for hours patiently, without a single word of complaint just to listen to him speak for 15 minutes.1 This was the extent to which Swamiji captured his audience. Dr Barrows2, the president of the Parliament said, “India, the Mother of religions was represented by Swami Vivekananda, the Orange-monk who exercised the most wonderful influence over his auditors.”
2. Clarity of thought and meaning – Swami Vivekananda was very clear in what he thought and what he meant. In a time where every religion claimed their superiority, Swamiji gave a very clear message. “I do not come”, said Swamiji on one occasion in America, “to convert you to a new belief. I want you to keep your own belief; I want to make the Methodist a better Methodist; the Presbyterian a better Presbyterian; the Unitarian a better Unitarian. I want to teach you to live the truth, to reveal the light within your own soul.” 3. Impressive and convincing – Swami Vivekananda, in his Chicago address gave an interesting short story.
“A frog lived in a well. It had lived there for a long time. It was born there and brought up there, and yet was a little, small frog. Of course the evolutionists were not there then to tell us whether the frog lost its eyes or not, but, for our story’s sake, we must take it for granted that it had its eyes, and that it every day cleansed the water of all the worms and bacilli that lived in it with an energy that would do credit to our modern bacteriologists. In this way it went on and became a little sleek and fat. Well, one day another frog that lived in the sea came and fell into the well. “Where are you from?” “I am from the sea.” “The sea! How big is that? Is it as big as my well?” and he took a leap from one side of the well to the other. “My friend,” said the frog of the sea, “how do you compare the sea with your little well?” 1 2
Northampton Daily Herald, 11 April 1894 Rev. Dr. John Henry Barrows (1847-1902), Chairman of the Parliament of World Religions
Then the frog took another leap and asked, “Is your sea so big?” “What nonsense you speak, to compare the sea with your well!” “Well, then,” said the frog of the well, “nothing can be bigger than my well; there can be nothing bigger than this; this fellow is a liar, so turn him out.”“ Swamiji used to above story to illustrate the narrow-mindedness of people at that time when it came to religion. The simple fact that the expression “frog of a well” was literally used to explain the narrow-mindedness shows how simply, yet convincingly he made an impression on his followers.
4. Action provoking – The biggest success for any orator is that he is able to provoke action from his listeners. Hitler, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. all of them are considered such great people due to the fact that they attracted so many followers and forced them to take action. Swamiji was no exception. His flaming burning words roused us from the stupor and slumber in which we were snoring. Jamshedji Tata was reportedly influenced by Vivekananda to establish the Indian Institute of Science—one of India’s well known Research University—during their conversation as fellow travellers on a ship from Japan to Chicago in 1898. Abroad, Vivekananda had some interactions with Max Müller. Scientist Nikola Tesla was one of those influenced by the Vedic philosophy teachings of the Swami Vivekananda.
5. Diction – Diction is defined as the style of speaking or writing dependent upon the choice of words. Swami Vivekananda was a speaker class apart. He was well-versed in many languages and religious texts of many languages. He had a way with words. It is said that he changed the way of the convention (Parliament of World Religions) altogether with his immaculate use of English literary diction and parentheses of ideas in reality.
6. Memory – Swami Vivekananda’s memory was extraordinary. Alongside his study of Western philosophers, he was thoroughly acquainted with Indian Sanskrit scriptures and many Bengali works, this by the time he had just entered into an undergraduate college. According to his professors, student Narendra was a prodigy. Dr William Hastie wrote, “Narendra is really a genius. I have travelled far and wide but I have never come across a lad of his talents and possibilities, even in German universities, among philosophical students.”3 At the age of 18, while he was in his college, he had a discourse with Dr Mahendralal Sarkar4, in deference to which he Principal of Scottish Church College from 1881-84 A conventional-turned-homeopath doctor, social reformer, propagator of scientific studies in nineteenthcentury India and the founder of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science 4 3 said “I never thought a young boy could have read so much!”
He was regarded as a srutidhara—a man with prodigious memory. 7. Platform presence and personality – For every public speaker to be effective, a dynamic personality is a pre-requisite. Swami Vivekananda’s oratory effectiveness owed to his multi-faceted, lively, energetic personality. Subhash Chandrabose said: “Swamiji was a full-blooded masculine personality – and a fighter to the core of his being. Strength, strength was a frequent call of his. If he had been alive, I would have been at his feet. Modern India is his creation.” His presence was so impactful that Vivekananda was “a great favourite at the parliament…if he merely crosses the platform, he is applauded.”5
Owing to his oratory skills, it’s not just Swamiji’s followers that revere him. Several leaders and philosophers have acknowledged Vivekananda’s influence. The first governor general of independent India, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, said “Vivekananda saved Hinduism, saved India.” According to Indian freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose, Vivekananda “is the maker of modern India”. For Mahatma Gandhi, Vivekananda’s influence increased his “love for his country a thousandfold.” Swami Vivekananda is widely considered to have inspired India’s freedom struggle movement. His writings inspired a whole generation of freedom fighters including Subhash Chandra Bose, Aurobindo Ghosh and Bagha Jatin. It is due to his contributions that National Youth Day in India is held on his birthday, January 12.
He is projected as a role model for youth by the Indian government as well as non-government organisations and personalities. On November 11, 1995 a section of Michigan Avenue, one of the most prominent streets in Chicago, was formally renamed “Swami Vivekananda Way”. Raipur is sometimes termed as the “Spiritual Birthplace” of Swami Vivekananda which is why in January, 2012 Raipur airport was renamed as Swami Vivekananda Airport In the end, these words of Swami Vivekananda come to one’s mind to do what they do best – inspire: “All the powers in the universe are already ours. It is we who have put our hands before our eyes and cry that it is dark. Know that there is no darkness around us. Take the hands away and there is the light which was from the beginning. Darkness 5
Boston Evening Transcript, 30 September 1893
never existed, weakness never existed. We who are fools cry that we are weak; we who are fools cry that we are impure.”