Monday, September 11, 2023

The Tale of Two 9/11s: Honoring Loss, Inspiring Hope

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon impacted the psyche of America and the world in a way that very few other events have. The images of the two towers collapsing, the people fleeing in terror, and the devastation that was left in the wake of the attacks are burned into our collective memory. The 9/11 attacks were a shock and a wake-up call to the reality of Islamic terrorism in the Western world. Two decades later, these attacks continue to shape our world today. It's not that 9/11 was the first terrorist attack on America – it wasn't. But the scale and coordination of the attacks, as well as the brazenness of using commercial airliners as missiles, was on a level that no one had seen before. The destruction of the Twin Towers, in particular, was something that people couldn't wrap their heads around. For many, it felt like the world as they knew it had ended. 

In this short post, I would like to urge the world to remember a different 9/11, one that can help move the world away from the prejudice and hatred that fueled the 9/11 attacks. 9/11 is a historic day in world history not just because of the terrorist attacks but also because on this day in 1893, Swami Vivekananda gave his famous speech at the Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago. This was a truly momentous event because it marked the first time that a Hindu monk had addressed a Western audience. Vivekananda, though initially nervous, bowed to Maa Saraswati -- the Hindu goddess of learning, and began his speech with "Sisters and brothers of America!" a common salutation (at least in India), but the authenticity with which he spoke those words struck such a chord with the 7000 plus audience that they gave him a standing ovation that lasted for over two minutes. This was an incredible feat, considering that, at the time, most people in the West knew very little about Hinduism and India.

In his speech, Vivekananda spoke about the unity of all religions and the need for religious tolerance. He said, "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."

Vivekananda's words ring even more true today in a world that is still reeling with religious hatred and intolerance that are rooted in supremacist religious ideologies. The 9/11 attacks were a brutal reminder of the consequences of such hatred. But, as we remember the innocent lives that were lost on that fateful day, let us also remember the words of Swami Vivekananda and recommit ourselves to building a world that is based on the Sanatana Dharma principles of respecting the dignity of all life, seeing the divinity in all beings, and working for the welfare of all irrespective of religious affiliation. Let us strive to create a world where supremacist religious ideologies cannot take root and fester. Instead, let us encourage a world where respect for pluralistic traditions and promoting religious tolerance are the norm. Only then can we hope to achieve true peace in our world.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Swami Vivekananda's speech at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions was a watershed moment in bringing Hinduism and India onto the global stage. At a time when few in the West knew anything about Hinduism, Vivekananda powerfully conveyed the spirit of universality that lies at the heart of India's ancient wisdom tradition. Just as the 9/11 attacks shaped the world we live in today, Vivekananda's historic address on that same date over a century ago impacted world history as well. His eloquent advocacy of religious tolerance and human fraternity resonates now more than ever in a world still struggling with religious divisions and strife. 

Two decades after the horrific 9/11 attacks, we would do well to keep Vivekananda's message alive. Those words of wisdom can serve as a guiding light as we work to heal divides, end prejudice, and build a more just and inclusive world order. Vivekananda's speech reminds us that when we recognize our shared humanity, embrace pluralism, and accept all faiths as true, we open the door to mutual understanding and cooperation. The road ahead requires perseverance and courage. But if we hold fast to these ideals, we can yet realize the dream of peace and harmony between all nations and peoples. The light of Vivekananda's universalist vision still shines brightly, helping illuminate the path forward even on the darkest of days.

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