0ur Lady Liberty, her outstretched right arm holding a torch high above her head, was illumined by the morning rays of the rising sun. The SS Seven Seas sailed from New York's harbour on 19 August 1966 and I saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time. A sense of adventure filled us. We were several hundred young people from all over America chosen for exchange students in Europe. We stood on the deck singing folk songs, tears streaming down our faces in anticipation of the year ahead. Among our favourite songs was Woody Guthrie's national anthem of the 1960's:
As we sang, the Statue of Liberty receded into the distance.
Surely Swami Vivekananda also saw Our Lady Liberty as he departed from New York for Europe in August 1895 on the SS Touraine. Swamiji was inspired to go to America after meditating on a rock at the southern tip of India. He spent five years of his short life travelling throughout the West. At one point he exclaimed, 'I have a message to the West as Buddha had a message to the East.' It seems to me that America's Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom and the Swami Vivekananda Rock Memorial depicts that great messenger of spiritual freedom. Both are inextricably linked. Each is an expression of tremendous sacrifice and serves as a symbol of hope. The Statue of Liberty stands at the entrance of New York's harbour.
On 28 October 1886 this statue of the female embodiment of 'Liberty Enlightening the World' was unveiled. She has stood for over one hundred years-a symbol of freedom, opportunity and a new life to millions of immigrants; at her feet lie broken, the shackles of oppression and alien rule. For those who landed at Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, the Statue of Liberty was their first American landmark and became an enduring symbol of promise to them. 'Liberty Enlightening the World' came as a gift of friendship from the people of France to the people of the United States. The date 4 July 1776 is etched in Roman numerals on the tablet she holds in her left arm. The day marks the signing of the declaration of Independence. 'Mother of Exiles' and Emma Lazarus' famous poem, The New Colossus are inscribed on the pedestal on which she stands:
The idea for the monument was conceived around 1865 as the Civil War ended and Americans approached their centenary celebrations as a nation. At that time the French still chafed under the regime of Napoleon III, the self-appointed Emperor of France. Among the most vocal critics were those who revered the American model of government. Their leader was Edouard Rene Lefebvre de Laboulaye, a jurist, professor of comparative law and devoted friend of America. While dining with friends in 1865, Laboulaye proposed the monument that became the Statue of Liberty. It would serve not only as a gift to America but also as a symbol of the values repressed by the Emperor.
In 1869, the French sculptor, Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi began sketches for his heroic Liberty, based upon the image of his own mother. He also incorporated ancient symbols of European art including the upstretched, torch-bearing arm, the tablet, the radiant crown and broken shackles. When the French Empire collapsed in 1870, Laboulaye firmly established his plans.
At that time, public subscriptions were a common way to pay for new monuments in France. In order to acquire the hundreds of thousands of francs to build a monument for another country, contributions were collected from one hundred eighty-one towns and one lakh subscribers, as well as a French lottery. The work in progress attracted three lakh visitors. Lady Liberty reached her final size of one hundred fifty-one feet, one inch from the base to the tip of the torch. Massive wooden, duplicates of plaster were constructed by carpenters to act as moulds for the copper skin. Artisans then hammered the copper into these moulds to add resilience and strength.
In 1877 the United States Congress authorized acceptance of the statue and chose a site for it on the New York harbour. However, it allocated funds for maintenance only. Despite numerous appeals to the wealthy, contributions to construct the pedestal on which Liberty would stand were not forthcoming. On 4 July 1884 the sculptor Bartholdi presented the official document to Levi Parsons Morton, the United States Vice-President under President Harrison(1889-1893). This gesture symbolically represented the transfer of Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty to the United States from the government of the French Republic.
Morton died in 1920 and it is not known whether he met Swami Vivekananda or gave him a tour of the Statue of Liberty. However, his daughter Mary Morton was a devoted student of Swami Bodhananda and donated a sum of twenty-two thousand dollars towards the acquisition of the Vedanta Society centre in New York in 1921.
On 5 August 1884 the ceremony of laying the cornerstone was conducted and Bartholdi decided to dismantle the statue and send Lady Liberty to her American home. The French naval vessel, Isere, sailed on 21 May 1885 with about two hundred crates containing the copper skin and iron skeleton of a monument still unsure of its base foundation. Joseph Pulitzer, an immigrant from Hungary, veteran of the Civil War and owner of the New York newspaper World, became a champion for the pedestal fund. Pulitzer launched a campaign to raise the final one lakh dollars. He promised to publish the name of every donor 'no matter how small the sum given'. In just five months on 11 August 1885 a World headline proudly announced complete success.
It took eight months to complete the pedestal. Paris-trained Richard M. Hunt designed the eighty-nine feet high, star-shaped pedestal. The great hollow concrete trunk with a granite surface was anchored in rock and was said to be so strong that to overturn the Statue of Liberty, the island itself would have to be turned upside down. The last block was set in the pedestal on 22 April 1886 by General Charles P. Stone, chief engineer of the project.
Over the years, each time I have seen 'Liberty Enlightening the World' it has been a deeply inspiring experience. Upon my return from Europe, our family walked up the stairs inside the Statue of Liberty and my father and I peered out over the New York harbour from her crown. Some arriving immigrants recalled, 'We just gazed on it. We could not really grasp the meaning of it but it was a very penetrating feeling to see that symbol of freedom.' She was to one traveller, 'a celestial figure' and to another, 'this new divinity'. She also inspired the courageous young people at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in June 1989 when they erected an image of Our Lady Liberty to serve as a symbol for their dreams and hopes for freedom. Indeed she has become a living presence guarding the eastern entrance to America.
Swamiji emphasized the importance of liberty in a letter to his Madras disciples written from New York on 19 November 1894. He wrote: 'There cannot be any growth without liberty. Our ancestors freed religious thought and we have a wonderful religion. But they put a heavy chain on the feet of society... In the West, society always had freedom and look at them. On the other hand, look at their religion. Liberty is the first condition of growth. Just as man must have liberty to think and speak, so he must have liberty in food, dress and marriage and in every other thing, so long as he does not injure others.'
Both the Statue of Liberty and the Vivekananda Rock Memorial are established on islands at the entry points of two great nations and each of these nations was a part of Swamiji's vision for a new religion. It was not until 2008 that I was able to make the long-awaited pilgrimage to Kanyakumari and the Rock Memorial. The serene and meditative atmosphere of the Rock Memorial invoked Swamiji's living presence.
At the end of his travels all over India, Swamiji reached Kanyakumari. There he prostrated himself before the image of Goddess Kanyakumari to pray for the welfare of his motherland and all humanity. 'At Cape Comorin, sitting in Mother Kumari's temple, sitting on the last bit of Indian rock, I hit upon a plan.' His worship finished, he swam to a rock which was separate from the mainland. The shark-infested ocean waters tossed and stormed about him. And there he dove into deep meditation upon the past, present and future of India. He contemplated the roots of her downfall and understood why his country had been thrown from the heights of glory to the depths of degradation. He formulated India's mission and prepared to undertake his journey to the West. After three days and nights, he returned to the mainland. This simple monk was transformed into a great reformer, nation builder and visionary for the East and West.
This sacred monument stands on one of two rocks located about five hundred metres off mainland India's southernmost tip, at the confluence of the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal. Even the boat ride across the turbulent sea currents to reach the monument affirms that Swamiji was a determined and strong swimmer. From ancient times this rock was regarded as a sacred place. Mythical tradition surrounded Sri Parai, the rock that has been blessed by the touch of Devi Kumari's holy feet.
The monument was conceptualized on Swamiji's birth centenary in 1962 and built by the Vivekananda Rock Memorial Committee. Like the Statue of Liberty and her pedestal, millions of Indians contributed small sums towards the construction of the Memorial under the guidance of the late Eknath Ranade. It was completed within six years with an average of six hundred fifty labourers under the supervision of S.K. Achari and cost more than rupees one crore thirty lakh.
On 2 September 1970 the Rock Memorial was inaugurated by the President of India, V.V. Giri. That date corresponded with the lunar calendar date of 11 September 1893 when Swami Vivekananda made his soul stirring address, 'Sisters and Brothers of America' at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. During the proceedings Eknath Ranade stated, 'This Memorial to Swami Vivekananda is not just one more addition to the existing memorials raised in his memory in the country. This rock is associated with Swamiji's life in the same manner as the Bodhi tree is associated with Gautama Buddha ... It was here that he, in his deep meditation got a vision, urging him to go abroad to give India's message of universal religion to the world as also to work for the regeneration and rebuilding of India so that she might become a fit and effective instrument to play the role ordained for her by the Divine.'
The Rock Memorial consists of two main structures. The Vivekananda Mandapam is similar in design to that of Sri Ramakrishna's temple at Belur Math and the entrance is formed like the ancient Ajanta and Ellora cave temples. The towering bronze statue of Swamiji depicts him as the wise wandering monk who travelled the length and breadth of India. The Sripada Mandapam surrounds a small projection with an imprint resembling a foot. According to legends, it was on this rock that Goddess Parvati as Kanya, did Her penance and austerities to obtain the hand of Lord Shiva. Some surmise that this prompted Swamiji to venture across the sea for his long meditation.
Along with the Memorial, Eknath Ranade also pioneered Vivekananda Kendra, a spiritually-oriented service mission. It calls upon those young people who choose to dedicate their lives to the service of the nation. Man-making and nation-building are the primary objectives of the Vivekananda Kendra. It is located on the mainland at Kanyakumari. A replica of Swamiji's image on the Rock Memorial stands near the sea in the Kendra garden within view of the original island monument.
Both the Statue of Liberty and Vivekananda Rock Memorial are beacons of light, literally and figuratively. Each is illumined at night and also serves as a light of hope and inspiration. Swamiji wrote from America, 'The whole world requires Light. It is expectant! India alone has that Light, not in magic mummeries or charlatanism but in the teaching of the glories of the spirit of real religion- of the highest spiritual truth. That is why the Lord has preserved the race through all vicissitudes unto the present day. Now the time has come. Have faith that you are all born to do great things.
Marie Louise Burke researched, compiled and studied Swamiji's letters, poems and articles written about him over many years. We are all indebted to her books where she noted, 'There was little doubt at the close of the nineteenth century that the technologically oriented culture of the West would spread itself over the world-a potential life-giver, but also, as Swamiji knew, a potential poison. It was in the heart of the West therefore, that the spirituality of the East, with its saving insight into the deepest nature of man must be implanted if man himself was to survive in any real sense of the word. And India in turn, seeing its worth in the eyes of the West, as well as its own spiritual heroes, would again pour out its priceless treasures, and in so doing, would, as Swamiji was so often to say, renew its life force and "conquer the world" with its spirituality. In this sweeping world movement, as he saw it, the West had a vital role to play.'
Swamiji encouraged people to cultivate strength and fearlessness; only then can true spiritual freedom be attained. In the West, we have long associated freedom with the material. In the East, especially throughout India, spiritual freedom is the ultimate goal of human life. Swamiji wrote: 'Shall India die? Then from the world all spirituality will be extinct, all moral perfection will be extinct, all sweet-souled sympathy for religion will be extinct, all ideality will be extinct; and in its place will reign the duality of lust and luxury as the male and female deities, with money as its priest; fraud, force and competition, its ceremonies, and the human soul its sacrifice. Such a thing can never be.'
Before leaving America for the last time, he spoke in New York, 'However mistaken we may be as to the method, all our struggle is really for freedom. We seek neither misery nor happiness, but freedom. This one aim is the secret of the insatiable thirst of man. Man's thirst, says the Hindu, man's thirst, says the Buddhist, is a burning, unquenchable thirst for more and more. You Americans are always looking for more pleasure, more enjoyment. You cannot be satisfied, true; but at bottom what you seek is freedom.' On the eve of his departure an English friend asked, 'Swami, how do you like your motherland now after four years' experience of the luxurious, glorious, powerful West?' His significant reply was: 'India I loved before I came away. Now the very dust of India has become holy to me, the very air is now to me holy, it is now the holy land, the place of pilgrimage, the Tirtha!'
All the explorers searched for a short route to India. They wanted ivory, silk, jewels, spices and other material goods. No one noticed her spiritual wealth. Even Christopher Columbus discovered the soil of America while in search of a new trade route to India. Yet Swamiji discovered America's soul. Swamiji like Hanuman leaping the ocean to save Sita, crossed the sea with Mother's name upon his lips and the Master's own bidding to save the West and hasten the spiritual evolution of all humanity. He wrote: 'Mother's grace, Mother's blessings are all paramount to me ... Brother, before proceeding to America, I wrote to Mother to bless me. Her blessing came, and at one bound I cleared the ocean.'
Upon his return to India Swamiji declared, 'Up India, and conquer the world with your spirituality! ... Spirituality must conquer the West. ... Political greatness or military power is never the mission of our race; it never was, and mark my words, it never will be. But there has been the other mission given to us, which is to conserve, preserve, accumulate as it were, into a dynamo, all the spiritual energy of the race, and that concentrated energy is to pour forth in a deluge on the world, whenever circumstances are propitious.'
In Kashmir on 4 July 1898 with Sister Nivedita and his American disciples, Sara Bull and Josephine MacLeod, Swamiji surprised them by arranging an Independence Day celebration. An American flag was made with the help of a brahmin tailor and Swamiji composed his poem, 'To the Fourth of July':
Sri Sarada Devi blessed Swamiji before he travelled to the West in 1893 and assured him, 'Do not worry. What you are doing now and what you will do in the future will be permanent. You are born just to accomplish this work. Thousands of people will hail you as a world teacher, a bestower of divine knowledge.' Later, Swamiji reassured all of us: 'It may be that I shall find it good to get outside of my body-to cast it off like a disused garment. But I shall not cease to work. I shall inspir men everywhere, until the world shall know that it is one with God.'
It was on America's Independence Day, 4 July 1902 that Swamiji chose to leave his body after a long meditation in his Belur Math room along the sacred Ganga. With 'Liberty Enlightening the World' as America's visual symbol, the country of my physical birth offers hope and opportunity to break through bondage. And India, the source of my spiritual birth, inspires all humanity with the Swami Vivekananda Rock Memorial and his soul-stirring message of unity and spiritual freedom.