Thursday, September 09, 2010

Pattabhi, Ganesh and Swami Vivekananda

We all know that Saturday is the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. I was at Pattabhi Jois's workshop at NYC's Chelsea Piers that morning. Here's an excerpt from my Chicago Reader article about being stuck in the orange zone between 14th Street and Houston, with nothing coming in except acrid white smoke:

Last night the roommate brought the day's paper from The Other Side, which was a treat. It was the Daily News but the whole thing was about the WTC and I couldn't put it down.

Got up at five to try to make it to yoga, which was supposed to be in SoHo at the Puck Building today. It's still closed, so it's being held at Eddie Stern's studio. Before I left I watched some Channel Two of course. People are now bringing in the toothbrushes and hairbrushes of missing loved ones for identification purposes. The anchors had changed places again. During the walk the city was quiet, quiet, quiet, except for Sixth Ave, which had a lot of what seemed to be nonemergency vehicles. Somehow everyone had managed to hose the dog urine off the sidewalks, which were still wet. Instead of the WTC there was a white glow telling me which way was south.

Houston was still barricaded. I took Crosby over and walked right up to one of the police officers (by the way, they tend to be thin here). I explained that I was trying to go to a yoga workshop, and it worked! After a bit of hesitation he let me go. Maybe he was tired. Behind me I heard, "We're in!" from someone also carrying a yoga mat. She was wearing a dust mask and walked in the street "because of the rats." Garbage hasn't been picked up in a while and is piling up everywhere. At least the wind has changed direction; maybe we can open the windows today.

There were about 40 people at yoga; I didn't see anyone else from Chicago. Most seemed to be from the area (including Willem and Gwynneth, natch). The woman checking people in was on the phone, telling the person on the other end that she couldn't help them get across Houston. No one talked before class, which was unusual. During practice Guruji didn't make a single joke; he was businesslike and class went quickly. I was distracted, weak, and stiff and had no balance. We heard more sirens than usual. Before savasana, we were told to call after 11:30 to find out if/​where we will practice on Thursday. Only about 15 people had shown up for the 7:30 class when I left at 7:40. One of the students was telling someone, "If it were just the bad smell, that would be one thing...."

Read the rest here.

Saturday is also the start of Ganesh Chaturthi, a 10-day festival celebrating the birth of Lord Ganesh, who is the remover of obstacles and represents prosperity and good fortune. Families install clay symbols of Ganesh at home or in temporary structures, and pujas are performed. On Day 11, the statue is taken through the streets in a procession accompanied by singing and dancing. Then it is immersed in a river or the sea, symbolizing a ritual see-off of the Lord in his journey towards His abode in Kailash (where His father, Lord Shiva lives). It is said that He takes with Him the misfortunes of His devotees.

The festival is being celebrated all week at Eddie Stern's NYC shala. His shala is where we practiced right after 9/11, and is now a full-fledged Ganesh Temple. On Friday at 6:30, Srivatsa Ramaswami will join the pujas and give a lecture on the meaning and use of mantra and ritual. Click here for the complete schedule.

September 11 is also the anniversary of the day yoga arrived in America, when Swami Vivekananda made his famous speech at the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

His rousing speech is the foundation of Jitish Kallat's new installation, "Public Notice 3" at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Swami Vivekananda, who stunned and enthralled the audience of 7,000 with an address that opened one of the first dialogues between Eastern and Western traditions and, importantly, argued passionately for universalism and religious tolerance. Exactly 108 years before the attacks in New York City and Washington, DC, Swami Vivekananda called for an end to all "bigotry and fanaticism" and pleaded for brotherhood across all faiths, a speech that was met with a standing ovation and was heralded by journalists as one of the pivotal moments of the Exposition. (Even today, the stretch of Michigan Avenue in front of the Art Institute is the honorary "Swami Vivekananda Way.")

Kallat has converted the complete text of Vivekananda's inspiring speech into LED displays on each of the 118 risers of the museum's Woman's Board Grand Staircase, which is itself adjacent to what is now Fullerton Hall, where Vivekananda made his original presentation. Drawing attention to the great chasm between this plea for tolerance of 1893 and the very different events of September 11, 2001, the text of the speech will be displayed in the five colors of the United States' Department of Homeland Security alert system--red, orange, yellow, blue, and green.

This historical coincidence--and the fact that the speech was delivered at the earliest attempt to create a global dialogue of faiths--heightens the potency of Vivekananda's persuasive words. The resulting work, Public Notice 3, creates a trenchant commentary on the evolution, or devolution, of religious tolerance across the 20th and 21st centuries. The installation will serve not as a passive commemorative act but rather as an actively contemplative space.

This is Bombay-born Kallat's first major American exhibit, and will be on display through January 2. Click here for more.

Here's an excerpt from Swami Vivekananda's opening speech - which was greeted with thunderous applause:

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. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation.

I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: "As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee."

The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: "Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to Me."

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 civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.

But their time is come. And I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

Read the rest here. Or hear the original recording of Swami Vivekananda - who possessed a lovely, cultured voice and usually spoke off-the-cuff - here. Hearing him brings tears to the eyes.


  1. Anonymous12:52 AM

    a fourth 9/11 - 9/11/1973, Chile

  2. Very nice post indeed!

  3. come out to buckingham fountain tomorrow at 930am for 108 sun salutations!

  4. Thanks Cara for the extremely interesting history stories. Having lived in the far western burbs for over 40 years, I don’t get downtown Chicago as much I as use to. I did not know (probably don’t remember) any of the Swami Vivekananda historical settings. Plus, I rarely go the older section of the Art Institute any more. This will be on my next trip to see his sites.

    This reminds me of when I went to LA and stayed at the Biltmore. The first time there, I checked out the ball room that Paramahansa Yogananda died in. Over the years and many conferences, the Biltmore changed – eventually, even changing the entrance to the other side of the building!!! With all of the remodeling, I was never able to find the ballroom again – only the general area because it had been modified into smaller rooms.

    Ralph from DeKalb

  5. ANON-Oh yes, I forgot the US-backed coup against Salvador Allende, the democratically-elected Marxist leader of Chile, who committed suicide....

    QE-Thank you for the compliment. Wait til you see tomorrow's pic.

    Bindi- I'll be at Suddha's tomorrow, then subbing at 9:30. I suspect they won't want to do 108 sun salutations.

    RHH - I didn't know that Yogananda's body expired there. His body is interred in Encinitas, I believe.

    The Ramakrisha-Vivekananda temple was in Hyde Park for years. Now it's in Homer Glen. More here.

  6. Cara – for accuracy sake:

    On March 7, 1952, Yogananda attended a dinner for the visiting Indian Ambassador to the U.S. and his wife at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. At the conclusion of the banquet Yogananda spoke and ended by reading from his poem My India. At the very last words, he slid to the floor dead from a heart attack. Yogananda is buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

    Ralph from DeKalb

  7. Anonymous3:26 PM

    Very nice post. I saw this work Jitish Kallat last week and it is a mesmerising work of art... besides the weight of what he is suggesting grows on you little by little. I was thinking about it all week and was searching more info on him and that's how \i came to your post. Thanks so much. This work will be marked boldly in art history.