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The Eleventh of September: On the same date, two men with their ideologies left a mark in the human history

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An IIT alumnus. An atheist Hindu. A concerned citizen.

Eleventh September. Whichever way we look at it, there is no escaping from the fact that this date has repeatedly sent us messages about the conflict between ‘faiths’, about the vehemence and zeal of the newer religions to impose their diktat on the others. The tragedy of this day is still raw in our collective memory. Yet, we often tend to overlook the fact that humankind has also been shown the way forward from such incidents.

One hundred and thirty-eight years before the day acquired the moniker of 9/11, with all its dreadful connotations, a young परिब्राजक सन्न्यासी (No, existing English words do not do justice to the meaning or significance of such a phrase, come as they do from a different kind of philosophy.) stood up to represent India and its ‘Sanatana Dharma’ at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

India was still chained by the shackles of colonial rule, and her spiritual ‘Dharma’ was in deep waters due to the millennia-long foreign rule. Yet, September 11 of 1893 saw Swami Vivekananda explaining the meaning of Sanatana Dharma to the world. Because, he was fearlessly carrying the torch of an ancient civilisation, a civilisation for which religion has never meant following a narrow pre-ordained path. Because, he came from a civilisation that has always maintained – यत्‌ ध्रिय़ते तत्‌ धर्मम्‌. Dharma is that which holds us, holds us up as a human being, and as a sentient race. What holds a human being up is her/his ethical and moral code, her/his humanity.

Listening to his Chicago speech today one begins to see that Vivekananda was also sending a message to us, the people of independent India of the twenty-first century. Because we are in need of that message. Perhaps the purposeful desertion of humanity on another 11 September, sending shock-waves around the world whose ripples continue to be as powerful and as disturbing, was not a mere coincidence.

I happened to be on the other side of the Atlantic on that day, twenty years ago. Attending a conference hosted by a university in an erstwhile East German city. It had only been a decade since the reunification of Germany and the differences between the east and the west were still clearly visible. The hosts of the conference arranged an informal meeting of the participants with the University officials, as such international conferences were still somewhat of a novelty for them.

A physics professor (let’s call him Prof. X) narrated how life used to be in the erstwhile German Democratic Republic (GDR). How he had been harassed by the police for years because of a phone call. A West German professor had come across some work done by Prof. X, wanted to have a discussion and made the mistake of picking up the phone to call him. Prof. X was harassed and bullied and was at his wits end to explain that his calculations pertain to certain esoteric branch of theoretical physics and had no bearing on anything remotely political. (Perhaps, it would be unfair to blame the police too much. Not one but two World Wars have been fought on the strength of such esoteric theoretical physics calculations. And the physicists who have done those calculations, mostly originated from various German Universities whether or not they were on the side of Germany. But that is a totally different story.)

I was acutely aware of the import of the professor’s tale. The visit to Dachau, only a week earlier, was still too fresh for me to completely emerge out of the profound sense of despair and dread induced by that place. Most of the young attendees, from various US universities, were not too keen on history though. They were impatiently waiting for the session to get over, so that they could rush to the computer room (Before the advent smart gadgets and omnipresent wi-fi networks, the single-most important task of conference organisers used to be to make provision for desktops connected to the local area network (LAN) for the visitors to be able to access their email etc.). I got caught up in the post-session discussions and reached the computer room somewhat late. Instead of the usual sound of boisterous laughter from the group, the room was eerily quiet. Everyone was watching the news on their browsers.

In my hotel room, all the TV channels were showing the same unbelievable visuals of the destruction of the twin towers in loop! It was not clear what exactly was happening, but a feeling of unknown panic gripped me. Suddenly, the excitement of travelling across Europe vanished in thin air. I just wanted to return home, to return to India. When, a couple of weeks later (students on government-sponsored academic tours must keep to pre-decided itineraries) the wheels of the plane finally touched down on the runway in Bombay – it felt as if I could breathe again!

Why, but? Every day, people die in India from a myriad different causes, some even because of terrorist activities. Because, it is the primeval reflex of every one of us to run to the mother when felt threatened. It is a deep-seated instinct borne out of the most sacred bond known to Nature. Our desire for a sense of security (even if unjustified) by holding on to the proverbial ‘sari-pallu’ of the mother. Yet, not everyone can revel in this sense of closeness, the primeval bond that is also at the very core of our humanity.

We know it because twenty years later another nightmare, in the making since that time, unfolded itself. The world watched, horrified, as people latching onto the wheels of a departing plane dropped down to certain death. They were desperate to leave. Because for those unfortunate souls, the land of their birth, the land of their ancestors remained a safe haven no longer.

Just as Dachau reminds us of the dark power of the ‘conflict of faith’, so do the visuals of the twin towers crumbling or of the Kabul airport. We must not forget that the sinister agenda of ‘dismantling hindutwa’, of harvesting a billion souls, of obliterating our ancient way of life, is taking shape in the backdrop of all this.

So we go back and try to decode the message of Vivekananda’s Chicago speech. Why was it necessary for a young penniless sanyasi to embark on a trip where he had to face immense hardships? Because the attack on Sanatana Dharma was as relentless then as it is now. And our ancient way of tolerance and acceptance have but made us easy preys throughout the ages.

It was Swami Vivekananda who stood up and told the world that we are no pushovers. That we would not take these attacks lying down any more. He was in Chicago to emphasise that we are not an illiterate, idol-worshiping ignorant lot but are the proud descendants of an ancient civilisation. His was the first push-back against the relentless attack on Santana Dharma.

And he reminded us that we, Indians, are children of the Mother Goddess. The Goddess who is worshiped in the form of ‘Shakti’, the power. He reminded us that we are the children of Mother India and as long as she or her civilisational ways are in danger we can not rest even for a minute. The firebrand monk, who shook the world in his too short a life, has left his work unfinished. It is our duty to carry the torch forward.

It is our duty to show the world that it is not 9/11 but the “Eleventh September of 1863” that humanity needs to remember and derive strength from.

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An IIT alumnus. An atheist Hindu. A concerned citizen.
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