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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/1/20

Unlikely Confluences: Sarah Bernhardt, Nikola Tesla and Swami Vivekananda

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Message Monish Chatterjee
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In one of those obscure, seemingly unlikely, yet epoch-making encounters in the grand pageant of human interactions, the paths of three trailblazers of contemporary history- the divinely graceful French actress and singer, Sarah Bernhardt, the Yugoslav inventor-genius par excellence Nikola Tesla, and the Indian cyclonic monk and firebrand Vedantist, Swami Vivekananda, came together in ostensibly mysterious ways towards the end of the nineteenth century. An icon of the theater, a deeply far-sighted scientist, and a trailblazing monk: what could this trio possibly have in common- or, as some might argue, was their historic meeting somehow pre-ordained, was it an evolutionary inevitability?

Swami Vivekananda signed photo with quote.
Swami Vivekananda signed photo with quote.
(Image by Wikipedia Swami Vivekananda)
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As is well known, Vivekananda arrived in the United States for the first time in 1893, as a participant representing Hinduism at the Chicago World Parliament of Religions, primarily at the behest of his many friends and admirers in Western and Southern India. History records their earnest efforts and encouragement that eventually sent forth this path-breaking emissary of Indian philosophy and thought to a region of the Western world that was steeped in the deepest darkness vis-a-vis the sacred literature of the East, its abiding message of universal brotherhood, and Vivekananda's own declaration of the Divinity of Man (echoes of the potent pronouncements from the Rishis of ancient India: Tat Tvam Asi (That Thou Art) and Amritasya Putra (Hark, ye sons of Eternity)).

It may be rightly asserted that it was Vivekananda who opened the doors to facilitate East Meeting West in the truest modern sense of that concept. Not only through his exposition of the ideals of India, especially the non-dual (advaita) aspects of the Vedanta, but to a much greater extent, through the sheer impact of his personality, erudition, and relentless efforts to break down sectarian barriers, abolish inert (and potentially violent) dogmas, and eliminate racial, social and cultural divides that continually plague the human race (we see such sectarian zealotry and intolerance of unimaginable intensity in our world today, especially in the mindlessly consumer-driven culture of the past twenty-five years), that Vivekananda enabled the realization of the American melting pot, however misunderstood, misused and distorted conceptually these days. Despite the current American obsession with China and Japan as the torchbearers of Asia, history no doubt will bear testimony that there were virtually no Chinese or Japanese equivalents of a Vivekananda or a Tagore (one may also include Gandhi in this group) that revealed the tranquil temperance of India and the East to Western society beset with bigotry, racism, missionary zeal and imperial arrogance. It is truly their rishi-like far-sighted efforts that have enabled the intermingling of people from across the continents, and the cultural understanding among people that we sometimes take for granted in this age. In this aspect as well, the contributions of India to the darkness-dispelling modern era (with distinct signs of regression at times) cannot be sufficiently emphasized. India has not flooded the world with Japanese automobiles, or Chinese imports. Instead, India has impacted, as it always has, the world of thought. It has brought people together; it has bridged cultures; it has provoked the world of the mind, not of the material. At a significant level, as all strife-ridden societies show us, this is what ultimately matters the most.

It was during Vivekananda's second visit to the United States in 1896 that he encountered Sarah Bernhardt- then, and for several decades after, the reigning empress of the European theater. We note here that Bernhardt (born 1844) was considerably older than both Vivekananda (born 1863) and Tesla (born 1856), yet maintained youthful vigor and energy for many decades. In his magnificent essay, Sarah Bernhardt and Vivekananda (which he wrote as his contribution to the book, Vedanta for the Western World, that he edited), the noted playwright and thinker Christopher Isherwood outlined the significance of the meeting of these two remarkable people from that age [1]. Towards the end of his essay, Isherwood speculated about a possible meeting of the two in our own proximate time, and what their conversation might entail.

Sarah Bernhardt photograph from 1864.
Sarah Bernhardt photograph from 1864.
(Image by Midcentury Modern)
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Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) is considered by many as the greatest actress who ever lived. For well over sixty years, she dominated the stage not only in her native France, but throughout the world. She lived an utterly individualistic lifestyle, marked by flamboyance and eccentricity, in manner of dress, behavior, and social interactions. She broke taboos, as is characteristic of iconoclasts, and is even known to have occasionally slept in a coffin that she kept in her room (as her shelter from the world, or perhaps as part of her exploration of the occult). In her "biography" of Sarah Bernhardt, written in the form of an imaginary correspondence with the legendary actress, the French novelist Francoise Sagan observes, "There is a basic tenet in the Hindu religion which holds that the soul lives on in proximity to the body for as many years as the person lived on earth." In the imaginative biography, thus, Bernhardt's soul and psyche report not only on her past life, but on contemporary events as well [2].

During his trip to Paris in 1900 to attend the Congress of the History of Religions, Swami Vivekananda met Sarah Bernhardt for the second time. Hosted initially by Mr. and Mrs. Francis Leggett at their handsome residence in the Place des Etats-Unis, Vivekananda came into close contact with many celebrated men and women of knowledge and culture. These included Patrick Geddes, Professor of Sociology, Edinburgh University; Jane Addams, American social activist; Mme. Emma Calve (French operatic soprano) and Mrs. Potter Palmer of Chicago; Princess Demidoff; the Duke of Newcastle; and of course, Mme. Sarah Bernhardt. Bernhardt had a fervent love for India and told Vivekananda several times how she regarded his country as "very ancient, very civilized." One year she staged a drama concerning India, and presented a realistic scene of an Indian street, with men, women, children and sadhus. She had told the Swami during their first meeting in New York that to gain a true setting for the play, she had visited museums for a whole month and carefully studied everything relating to India.

Following a three-month sojourn in France, Vivekananda left with a group including Josephine MacLeod and Mme. Calve, on board the legendary Orient Express. During a visit to the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, the Swami was shown the various rooms, including Indian and Chinese exhibits- and was especially moved by the story of Napoleon's son (Napoleon II, who was only briefly emperor after his father's abdication in 1815) who was kept in virtual imprisonment there, and had died of a broken heart. Interestingly, Vivekananda had seen a play named l'Aiglon (the Young Eagle) by Sarah Bernhardt that portrayed the tragic story [3].

Nikola Tesla photograph late 1890s holding wireless lamp.
Nikola Tesla photograph late 1890s holding wireless lamp.
(Image by Nikola Tesla's Third Greatest Invention: The First Drone)
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The story of the Serbian inventor and electrical wizard, Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) is that of a genius who was a direct, and many would argue, unmatched rival to the more widely known American invention icon, Thomas Edison. While Edison was making history through the development of the DC (direct current) motor, Tesla had already devised the considerably superior AC (alternating current) machine that soon became the industry standard. In addition to his groundbreaking work with AC motors and dynamos, Tesla's induction coil led to the development of radio transmission, neon light, radar, and a host of high voltage devices. The impact of Tesla's inventions and ideas has been immeasurable in the advancement of modern electrical and communications technology.

Interestingly, the extremely dexterous and in some ways eccentric Tesla also had a mystical and introspective dimension to his personality. In the 1890s, when the bachelor Tesla's name began to assume legendary proportions in New York high society, he began to be associated with, among others, the heiresses Anne Morgan and Flora Dodge, the pianist Marguerite Merington, and Sarah Bernhardt. Tesla had first met Bernhardt in Paris in 1892. Apparently, while Tesla was resting at a sidewalk cafe with friends, Bernhardt, while passing him, dropped her handkerchief in a flirtatious gesture. Tesla sprang to his feet and returned it to her, and, it turns out, a bond was established between the two. Later, he met Bernhardt again in the presence of Vivekananda, in 1896- the "encounter" that is the focal point of this essay. It is believed that Tesla had kept Bernhardt's handkerchief for the rest of his life [4].

In their biographical work, Tesla: Master of Lightning, the authors Cheney and Uth speculate that despite his claims to the contrary, Tesla had a mystical bend of mind [4]. Such is illustrated by the following comment: Have you ever abandoned yourself to the raptures of the contemplation of a world you yourself create? You want a palace and there it stands, built by architects finer than Michelangelo. All this world, real or imaginary, it matters little, you want to be able to see through some such thing as a wire, for if you succeed in transmitting sight you will see it all ([5], Tesla, 1896). Following his encounter with Vivekananda, Tesla used Eastern/Hindu philosophical concepts in his writings. Thus he wrote, "There manifests itself in the fully developed being, Man, a desire.... to imitate nature, to create, to work himself the wonders he perceives..... Long ago he recognized that a perceptible matter comes from a primary substance, of tenuity beyond conception, filling all space- the Akasa or luminiferous ether- which is acted upon by the life-giving Prana or creative force, calling into existence, in never ending cycles all things and phenomena. The primary substance, thrown into infinitesimal whirls of prodigious velocity, becomes gross matter; the force subsiding, the motion ceases and matter disappears, reverting to the primary substance." ([6], Tesla, 1930; elsewhere 1907)

As the author and electrical engineer Toby Grotz writes on this subject, ".... There are words in Sanskrit that describe concepts totally foreign to the western mind. Single words may require a full paragraph for translation into English..... Tesla's use of Vedic terminology could provide a key to understanding his view of electromagnetism and the nature of the universe..... (Leland) Anderson suggested that it was through association with Swami Vivekananda that Tesla may have come into contact with Sanskrit terminology...." [7].

During his trips to the United States and Europe, Swami Vivekananda met with several major scientists of the time, including Lord Kelvin, and of course, Nikola Tesla. Swami Nikhilananda wrote later, "Nikola Tesla.... was much impressed to hear from the Swami his explanation of the Samkhya cosmogony and the theory of cycles given by the Hindus. He was particularly struck by the resemblance between the Samkhya theory of matter and energy and that of modern physics. The Swami also met in New York Sir William Thompson, afterwards Lord Kelvin, and Professor Helmholtz, two leading representatives of western science. Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress had an interview with the Swami and greatly admired his teachings," [8].

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Monish R. Chatterjee received the B.Tech. (Hons) degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering from I.I.T., Kharagpur, India, in 1979, and the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering, from the University of Iowa, (more...)
 

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3 people are discussing this page, with 7 comments


Monish Chatterjee

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I am presenting here an older essay from 2006 dealing with the intriguing encounters between an Indian Vedantist, a Serbian scientist/inventor and a French actress during the last decade of the 1800s. It appears to signify a convergence of the highest in art, philosophy and science. As a disclaimer, let me also mention that this story of the advent and influence of Vedanta (a non-dual version of Hindu philosophy) in the Western world is not intended as any encouragement of the sectarian and fundamentalist turn in Indian politics and government within the last several years, threatening India's pluralistic and secular foundation. Hindus in India have over the ages been proud of their belief in pluralism, diversity and acceptance.

Submitted on Saturday, Feb 1, 2020 at 6:00:00 PM

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Derryl Hermanutz

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Great essay! Lots of interesting history and information.

Submitted on Saturday, Feb 1, 2020 at 11:55:44 PM

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Monish Chatterjee

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Thank you so much for your appreciation of this story. The individuals discussed here are indeed representative of the much-needed cultural iinter-mingling so vital to bringing humanity closer. Their interactions show that Kipling's divisive assertion "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet" is without any foundation. Yet the divisiveness persists at so many levels to this day, endangering life on this planet.


Submitted on Sunday, Feb 2, 2020 at 2:06:00 AM

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John Rachel

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Reply to Monish Chatterjee:   New Content

Only a person with the blinders of cultural chauvinism and historical myopia would agree with Kipling. I've been in over 40 countries, East and West, and the commonalities we share are as profound as the differences we observe and hopefully come to respect and appreciate.

Submitted on Sunday, Feb 2, 2020 at 12:20:57 PM

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Monish Chatterjee

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John: Such sage words. And of course, Masumi and you live that confluence in your lives. There has clearly been a quest to find that commonality throughout history, and those who were engaged in that quest (I am reminded of the great Chinese pilgrims Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang who traveled extensively in India 500-600 BC and 600-700 AD), and Marco Polo, Mungo Park, and those who connected on the mental plane- Thoreau, Max Mueller, Schopenhauer- and so many others. - they are the true human seekers. And you have been in their league. Your example reminds me of Arthur Clarke- who made Sri Lanka his home, and maybe even Hemingway who spent much time in Cuba and in Paris. Man was destined to try to know this world, from one end to the other- and as you say, recognize that "narrow domestic walls" (in Tagore's words) are meaningless, yet the differences are so very enriching. Creation is, after all, anything but monotonous.

Submitted on Sunday, Feb 2, 2020 at 4:27:11 PM

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John Rachel

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Riveting and informative article, Monish. And this ...

"Creation is, after all, anything but monotonous."

... I may use in my next book, proper credit given, of course.

Submitted on Monday, Feb 3, 2020 at 3:12:59 AM

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Monish Chatterjee

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John:


Thanks so much. This is so generous.


If you use the line, I would be most honored.


MRC.



Submitted on Monday, Feb 3, 2020 at 5:03:39 AM

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