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VOL. XXII NO. 4, June 1-15, 2012
The man who made it possible:
Vivekananda's Chicago visit

M.C. Alasinga Perumal

M.C. Alasinga Perumal was born in Chickmagalur in 1865 in an orthodox Vaishnavite family, the eldest of two brothers and a sister. His father, Chakravarthy Narasimhacharya, was employed with the local municipality. With his job unable to sustain the family, Narasimhacharya left Chickmagalur in the 1870s and reached Madras, where he managed to get a job with the Customs Department.

The family settled in Triplicane near the residence of Yogi Parthasarathy, Alasinga's maternal uncle. Alasinga continued his education at the Hindu High School, then joined Presidency College for his pre-University course. It was around that time that he married Rangamma, a girl from a Karnataka Iyengar family. Alasinga then entered Madras Christian College, where he caught the eye of the Rev. William Miller, then the Principal. Thanks to Miller, Alasinga got a scholarship. He graduated with a B.A. degree in Science in 1884. He then started pursuing Law course which he, however, discontinued due to family circumstances.

In 1885, leaving his family behind in Madras, Alasinga moved to Kumbakonam and then to Chidambaram, working as a school teacher in both towns. He returned to Madras in 1889 on the death of his father and joined Pachaiyappa's School in George Town as a teacher. He was soon promoted to the post of Headmaster, a position he held almost till the end of his life. Just a year before his death in 1909 he was appointed Professor of Physics at Pachaiyappa's College.

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It was around 1890/91 that Alasinga learnt of the upcoming Parliament of World Religions from Yogi Parthasarathy Iyengar who, by virtue of his connections with the Hindu League of America and scholarly reputation, had been invited to participate. Representatives from various communities except the Hindu community had been named. Alasinga and his friends saw the Parliament as a good opportunity for the Hindus to present their faith to the world, but the question of who would travel to Chicago and represent Hinduism remained undecided even after days of discussion. The answer came with the arrival of Swami Vivekananda in Madras in early 1893.

Alasinga Perumal and his friends met Swami Vivekananda, who was then a guest of Manmathanath Bhattacharya, the first Indian Accountant-General of Madras, at his residence in San Thomé. Swamiji was introducted to the Madras public at the Triplicane Literary Society, where Alasinga was an active member. It was a place the Swamji was to later frequent and deliver many lectures. Swamiji was impressed by Alasinga Perumal, who shared his ideas and concerns about the motherland. Alasinga thus became a close confidant and disciple of Swami Vivekananda.

Alasinga felt that Swami Vivekananda should be sent to Chicago as the representative of Hindus. When the idea was put to him, Swami Vivekananda readily agreed, having earlier been requested by the Maharaja of Mysore, the Raja of Ramnad and others to travel to the West and propagate the ideals of Hinduism. A subscription committee was formed under the leadership of Alasinga to raise funds, which did not always come easily. Alasinga even had to resort to door to door begging at times to raise the money. Soon, the princely sum of Rs.500 was collected. However, this sum was returned to the donors as Swami Vivekananda had second thoughts about his participation in the Parliament, when he took it as a bad omen that the Raja of Ramnad had failed to make the contribution promised by him for the purpose. Alasinga was disheartened that his efforts had gone waste.

However, much to Alasinga's joy, the whole idea was revived, as Swami Vivekananda, encouraged by the reception accorded from the people of Hyderabad during his visit there, showed renewed interest in going ahead with the trip. The Nizam too offered a sum of Rs.1000 towards meeting the costs. Swamiji also had a vision of his Guru, Sri Ramakrishna, which he took as a divine command to make the journey.

Alasinga then renewed his efforts to collect subscriptions and, soon, nearly Rs.4000 was collected. He spared no efforts for the cause, even going as far as Mysore to meet the Maharaja and getting contributions from him. Swami Vivekananda sailed to Boston from Bombay, where Alasinga saw him off.

Throughout his stay in America, Swami Vivekananda wrote letters to Alasinga and his other close disciples, keeping them informal of his activities. When he once wrote that he was running short of funds, Alasinga immediately borrowed Rs.1000 from a merchant which, along with his monthly salary and money raised from selling his wife's gold ornaments, he sent by cable immediately.

What happened at the Parliament of World Religions is now history. Swami Vivekananda became a hero and started drawing large crowds wherever he spoke. But the papers in India gave lukewarm coverage to the whole event, making Swami Vivekananda disappointed. He wrote to Alasinga asking him to convene a public meeting in Madras to pass a resolution expressing utmost satisfaction with Swamji's representation at the Parliament and send the resolutions for publication in various newspapers in the USA. Alasinga accordinly convened the meeting on April 28, 1894 at Pachaiyappa's Hall. Present at the meeting were many dignitaries of Madras, such as Rajah Sir Savalai Ramaswamy Mudaliar, Sir S.Subramania Iyer and Dewan Bahadur Raghunatha Rao. A resolution was passed thanking Swami Vivekananda for the work he was doing and this was widely covered in the Press. Similar meetings were organised by Alasinga in Kumbakonam, Bangalore and Mysore.

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In 1894, Alasinga started the Young Men's Hindu Association. His literary contribution started the next year, when, at the behest of Swami Vivekananda, he launched Brahmavadin, a journal dedicated to Hindu religion and philosophy. Assisting him in his efforts were fellow disciples of Swami Vivekananda like Dr. M.C. Nanjunda Row and Venkataranga Rao. The first issue came out in September 1895 from the Brahmavadin Press, which had been set up in Broadway. Swami Vivekananda himself contributed articles regularly to the journal and also helped get overseas subscribers. The Brahmavadin Publishing Company was also established by Alasinga, through which he edited and published titles under the 'Brahmavadin Series'. In July 1896, Alasinga was instrumental in starting the Prabuddha Bharata, or Awakened India, a journal that has been in uninterrupted publication ever since, making it the oldest magazine of its kind in the country.

Alasinga was actively involved in the various celebrations and meetings that were held across the city during the nine-day stay of Swami Vivekananda on his return from the West. He also played an active role in the early years of the Madras Mutt that was established by Swami Ramakrishnananda in 1897.

The death of Swami Vivekananda (July 1902) and the passing away of his wife (in 1905) were setbacks that only made heavier the toll on his health that years of selfless public work and service had taken. He passed away on May 11, 1909.

Brahmavadin continued to be published until 1914, when it was finally wound up. It was succeeded by Vedanta Kesari, a magazine that has been uninterruptedly published ever since. The Ramakrishna Mutt has digitised all the issues of Brahmavadin and Vedanta Kesari (up to 2009) and made them available for sale. In a way, it is an act perpetuating the memory of Alasinga, the man who played a vital part in Swami Vivekananda's overseas mission. A biography of Alasinga Perumal has also been recently released.

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In this issue

A good act, but could be better!
Integrating the City's transport
It's time to manage transport in the City
Elephants over the centuries
Vivekananda's Chicago visit
The day the Don had us nearly run out
Our cars, 1962-2011
Sounds you do not hear

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan


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