Shri Gurubyoh Namaha.

Few of us have heard of Alasinga Perumal (Iyengar). Born in 1863, he was just a modest, deeply religious, high school teacher, who lived in Triplicane, Chennai (then called Madras). There was little exceptional about him, except – a big except – his devotion to Swami Vivekananda and how he helped shape a crucial part of Swamiji’s life. Alasinga Perumal was to Swamiji what Sri Hanuman was to Sri Rama. Not surprisingly, Swamiji regarded him ‘my dearest disciple’!

Alasinga Perumal
Alasinga Perumal

It all happened in 1892/1893. Alasinga had heard about a great Parliament of World Religions to be held in Chicago in 1893. He could have perhaps gone to the Parliament himself, but, given his modesty, he wanted someone else really scholarly to go. He tried to persuade some leading Hindus from Madras to do so but had failed.

Around the same time, another young man, also just 30 years of age, had arrived in Madras. Born in 1863 as Narendranath (later to be called Swami Vivekananda), he had met Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in 1881 and had become a most ardent disciple by the time of his guru’s Samadhi in 1885. During 1888 -93, he wandered all over India, spreading the mission and message of Ramakrishna and towards the end of his Bharat darshan came to Madras and spent several months and met Alasinga.

In Madras, Alasinga initially just organised Vivekananda’s lectures. But, once he got to know Vivekananda, he was in no doubt as to who would be the best Hindu to go to Chicago. He therefore not only suggested that Vivekananda goes to the Parliament (indeed, as suggested by several other prominent people such as Raja of Ramnad), but offered to collect the required funds and make it feasible. He set about building a modern version of Rama Sethu so that his ‘Rama’ could go across the seas and conquer. He succeeded in collecting the money required only at second attempt: at Swami Vivekananda’s instance the contributors were mostly poor people but included the Mysore Maharaja, Hyderabad Nizam and others. His devotion was so great that he literally carried Swami Vivekananda’s luggage on to the boat, ‘Peninsular’, in Bombay bound for the America and saw him off.

Vivekananda arrived in USA some six weeks ahead of the opening of the Parliament but his visit did not start auspiciously. He had lost the travelers cheques he had brought and what little cash he was left with was getting depleted fast. Autumn had set in Chicago and he was not equipped for the cold weather. One night, he sought to sleep in the Railway platform as one could have done in India, but could not and therefore spent the night in an empty packing case. Most importantly, he learnt that he could not attend the Parliament as he had not registered in time. Three weeks before the opening date, he wrote in some desperation to, whom else but, Alasinga.

‘Expenses are awful. You gave me 179 pounds in India. Now it is down to 130. America is expensive and it costs me one pound a day, despite the fact I am now living as a guest of an old lady in a village near Boston, who shows me off to her friends as a curio from India. All those rosy ideas we had before I started have melted. Starvation, cold, hooting in the streets because of my dress, these are all the things I have to fight against. But, no great things were ever done without great labour. I have a call from ABOVE and I must stick to my guns’

‘Before you get this letter I will be down to 60 or 70 pounds. Try your best to send some money – if not for keeping me for a while, at least to help me get me out of this country. In the meantime, if anything turns out in my favour, I will wire – mindful though that a word costs about a pound!’

Alasinga promptly collected some money and sent it to him. In the meantime, one Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University had heard about Swamiji and in his second attempt managed to meet him. The professor was enthralled with the meeting and assumed he was going to the Parliament. When told that the deadline for registration had already passed and in any case he had no sponsors, Professor Wright told him ‘To ask for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine.’ He promptly wrote to the Chairman of the Parliament ‘Here is a man more learned than all our professors put together’ and also organized the funds for the trip and other logistics. It is pointless wondering whether but for the chance meeting with the professor Swamiji would have attended the Parliament: he was a man of destiny and one way or other he would have attended the Parliament!

On September 11, 1893, the Parliament opened. On the first day itself, after four other prepared speeches were read, Swamiji was asked to speak. In one of the greatest orations, he started with ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’ – five immortal words that made the 7000 strong audience to stand up in the realization they were witnessing an epochal moment. The speech was very brief, but, so brilliant was he that overnight he became a sensation. Life-size portraits of Swamiji, who only a few weeks earlier been told he could not attend the conference, quickly adorned the streets of Chicago!

In the Parliament itself, he became the star attraction and spoke five more times. He showcased all the great qualities that characterized his later work and his life’s mission –

  • His immense pride in Hinduism
  • An ability to make profound and clear expositions on Hinduism
  • Tolerance and indeed respect for other religions
  • Acting as a bridge between the East and West
  • Skills as an orator especially in English.

His third and the longest speech he delivered at the Parliament is a scholarly treatise on Hinduism. In another speech he was blunt: Hindu, or, Christian, or a Buddhist, whoever thinks his religion is greater than that of others, is like a frog in a well, unwilling to accept either that there are other wells, or, that there are great seas outside their wells. His concluding speech, another brief one, was about inter religious harmony and peace, or, as he concluded ‘assimilation, not destruction’.

At the end of the Parliament a 1600 page report was published – it said right at the beginning: ‘Swami Vivekananda’s performance and the magnificent way he conquered the entire West by his erudition and clear exposition brings to one’s memory the Latin phrase – veni, vidi, vici, or, he came, he saw and he conquered’. The New York Herald remarked “After hearing him, we feel how foolish we are to send missionaries to this learned nation”.

What started as a trip to the Parliament, thanks to the fame acquired there, ended as a four year lecture tour of the Americas and Europe. Appropriately on his return to India in 1897, Swami Vivekananda first touched the shores of South India. He had come by ship to Colombo and then took what used to be called the boat mail to Pamban, then to Kumbakonam and finally Madras. In the four years he was abroad, he had gained recognition as one of India’s greatest sons and this was reflected in the welcome reception all along the way – there are stories of his train having to make unscheduled stops to accommodate people wanting to have his darshan. The thoroughfares of the city that first recognized his greatness now wore a festive look, with welcome arches all the way from the Egmore station to Caste Kernan on the beach, where he was to stay for a few days. It is now called Vivekananda Illam. During the nine days in Madras he delivered several memorable speeches, including one where he asked young Indians to ‘Arise! Awake! Stand up and assert yourself’.

Through all these memorable years and for the rest of their lives the sublimity of the guru-sishya relationship between him and Alasinga remained. In fact even for the Swamiji’s later trip to the West, it was Alasinga who travelled with him to Colombo and saw him off in the boat. Alasinga later played a major role in starting Ramakrishna Ashram in Madras and was heavily involved in various other initiatives.

Swami Vivekananda said of Alasinga:

‘One rarely finds a man like our Alasinga in this world, one so unselfish, so hard-working, and devoted to his guru, and such an obedient disciple is indeed very rare on earth. His devotion I can never repay.’

Author’s notes: 2013 is the the 150th Birth Anniversary Year of Swami Vivekananda and the South Indian Society London plans to celebrate it appropriately all through the year. This will be the first of several articles on Swami Vivekananda and his teachings to be published as part of the celebration.