“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.”
These words delivered by Swami Vivekananda at the Art Institute of Chicago on 11 September 1893 have left an indelible mark across generations. While the world reveres and celebrates the historic speech to date, very few people know the role that the princely state of Khetri played in Vivekananda’s trip to the US.
It was Maharaja Ajit Singh Bahadur, the erstwhile ruler of Khetri who sponsored the trip for his guru and friend, Swami Vivekananda.
As a mark of respect and gratitude, the spiritual leader visited Khetri, now a town in Rajasthan’s Jhunjhunu district, on his return.
Born as Narendra Dutta aka Swami Bibidishanand on 12 January 1863 in Kolkata, Vivekananda had very little connection to princely rulers. Meanwhile, Singh, an eighth-generation king, had been ruling the Shekhawat dynasty for nearly 20 years when he met Vivekananda. He was born in Alsisar and was adopted by Fateh Singh, who had no son.
An accidental meeting in 1888 birthed the special bond between Singh and him when Swami Vivekananda met the Maharaja at the Khetri House in Mount Abu. It is believed that the duo spent time decoding various strands of spirituality, yoga and universalism.
During one such conversation, Singh told Swami Vivekananda to wear a turban as a shield to protect himself from the dust storms of Rajasthan. The Maharaja also provided a saffron robe – which went on to become Swami Vivekananda’s traditional attire. Interestingly, Singh had bestowed the name ‘Vivekananda’ to him as mentioned in the book ‘Living Vedanta’ by Chaturvedi Badrinath.
The monk left after staying at the Khetri house for four months.
A Monk and A Maharaja
Although Singh and Swami Vivekananda met only thrice – in 1891, 1893 and 1897 – they developed an unbreakable bond of friendship over the years and the exchange of several letters between them is a testimony to that bond.
The hand-written letters (written in English) were discovered a hundred years later in 1999 by the Jhunjhunu district administration. Written between 1893 and ‘95, these were found while cleaning the sub-divisional officer’s record room.
While some of the letters are in the possession of Ramakrishna Mission at Belur in West Bengal, some are displayed at the Khetri Museum.
In one of the letters, dated 4 March 1895, Singh congratulates Swami Vivekananda for his Chicago speech and thanked him on behalf of the entire State for representing India on a global platform.
“As the head of this Durbar (a formal stately assemblage) held today for this special purpose, I have much pleasure in conveying to you, in my own name and that of my subjects, the heartfelt thanks of this State for your worthy representation of Hinduism at the Parliament of Religions, held at Chicago, in America…..The influence of your speech and behaviour in foreign lands has not only spread admiration among men of different countries and different religions but has also served to familiarise you with them, to help in the furtherance of your unselfish cause,” The Maharaja wrote.
Between September and October of 1898, Vivekananda wrote three letters inquiring about Singh’s health (even as his own health began to suffer) and also asking for funds.
“Though the American friends are doing everything they can to help me, I feel shame to beg from them all the time, especially as illness makes one incur contingent expenses. I have no shame to beg of one person in the world and that is yourself,’ he wrote.
Singh soon sent a money order of Rs 500.
Another letter spoke about Swami’s mother.
“I approach your Highness today on a most important business of mine, knowing well that I have not the least shame in opening my mind to you,” wrote Swami Vikvenanada in a letter dated 22 November 1898. He goes on to write about financial assistance for his mother in Kolkata. Singh immediately allotted a monthly stipend of Rs 100.
From calling Singh as his ‘true friend’, hesitantly asking for monetary help to enlightening him with spiritual wisdom, Saami Vivekananda poured all his feelings in the letters – as any true friend would do.
The comfort level between the two was such that once Swami Vivekananda confessed that he considered Singh his “only friend in this life.”
A little known moment to cherish, from so long ago.
You can read all the letters here.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)