Swami Vivekananda’s Historic Tête-À-Tête With Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata

lawzmag.com31st May,1893 was a watershed landmark in India’s long and chequered history. S.S. Empress of  India, a 16,992 ton luxury steamship belonging to the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, embarked on a voyage from the Japanese port of Yokohama to the Canadian port of Vancouver on a warm, sunny afternoon. Aboard the ship were two Indian giants – a robust young monk wearing a saffron robe and a Rajasthani style turban and a middle aged Zoroastrian businessman with a regal beard and bearing. The monk was none other than Swami Vivekananda, who was to transport and interpret to the Western world, more effectively than anyone else, the religious and philosophical wealth and potential of India, and about whom Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru effusively observed, ‘Rooted in the past and full of pride in India’s prestige, Vivekananda was yet modern in his approach to life’s problems and was a kind of bridge between the past of India and her present.’ The businessman was Jamshedji Nusserwanji Tata, the undisputed father of the Indian industrial revolution hailed by Pandit Nehru as ‘one of the big founders of modern India’. Jamshetji was travelling first class and Vivekananda was also travelling first class, though reluctantly, because Maharaja Ajit Singh Bahadur, the ruler of the princely state of Khetri, Rajasthan, and an indefatigable friend, disciple and patron of Vivekananda who had given him the laudatory name ‘Swami Vivekananda’, had planned it so. Vivekananda was on his way to attend the Parliament of World Religions at the Chicago Art Institute and Jamshetji was on a business trip to the United States. The two titanic personages accidently met on the majestic Promenade Deck of the ship. They started talking animatedly totally oblivious of what was happening around them. Vivekananda explained to Jamshetji his avowed mission of preaching to the West the universality of all religions. Jamshetji in turn told him that he was travelling to the United States in search of the technical wherewithals for laying the foundations of the steel industry in India. Jamshetji was irresistibly smitten by the burning nationalist spirit of the monk. His eyes lit up in admiration and bewilderment when Vivekananda talked about the relentless oppression, suppression and repression of his fellow Indians at the hands of their British masters who denied them even the barest necessities of life. Vivekananda narrated to Jamshetji his own life experiences which he had gained during his extensive tours throughout the length and breadth of India as a wandering monk in the quest of truth. He lamented on the abject indifference of the Maharajas and the educated people towards the poor and underprivileged and told Jamshedji in no uncertain terms that the real hope of India lay in the prosperity and progress of its teeming millions. They both nostalgically recalled their individual visits to a match manufacturing factory in Japan and discussed about Japan’s phenomenal progress in science and technology. Vivekananda even asked Jamshedji to establish his own match manufacturing factory in India to reduce India’s dependence on Japanese matchsticks, buttress India’s national wealth and give gainful employment to the Indian youth. Vivekananda blessed Jamshedji and remarked, ‘How wonderful it would be if we could combine the scientific and technological achievements of the West with the asceticism and humanism of India!’On 25th July,1893, Vivekananda and Jamshetji  disembarked at Vancouver, warmly shook hands and took leave of each other. The two were never to meet again. But Vivekananda made an everlasting impact on Jamshetji and many years later Jamshedji disclosed to Sister Nivedita, the venerable Scotch-Irish social worker, author, teacher and disciple of  Vivekananda, that when Vivekananda was in Japan everyone who saw him were instantly struck by his resemblance to Lord Buddha.

On 11th September, 1983,Vivekananda created history when he delivered his epochal speech at the World Parliament of Religions. With his captivating eyes, he started with the salutation ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’ that evoked the thunderous standing ovation of the vast assemblage of over 7,000 people. The New York Herald summed it all up when it reported, ‘Vivekananda was undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions’. The ‘Messenger of Indian Wisdom to the Western World’ returned to India in 1897.Jamshedji was overwhelmingly elated at Vivekananda’s stellar achievements on foreign soil. Keeping the inspiring message of  Vivekananda in mind, Jamshetji conceived the establishment of a ‘university or institute of research’. In September, 1898, he pledged half of his personal wealth of Rs. 30 lacs to that cause. On 23rd November, 1898, Jamshedji wrote a letter to Vivekananda saying,

I trust you remember me as a fellow-traveller on your voyage from Japan to Chicago. I very much recall at this moment your views on the growth of the ascetic spirit in India, and the duty, not of destroying, but of diverting it into useful channels. I recall these ideas in connection with my Research Institute of Science for India, of which you have doubtless heard or read. It seems to me that no better use can be made of the ascetic spirit than the establishment of monasteries or residential halls for men dominated by this spirit, where they should live with ordinary decency, and devote their lives to the cultivation of sciences- natural and humanistic. I am of opinion that, if such a crusade in favour of an asceticism of this kind were undertaken by a competent leader, it would greatly help asceticism, science and the good name of our common country; and I know not who would make a more fitting general of such a campaign than Vivekananda. Do you think you would care to apply yourself to the mission of galvanizing into life our traditions in this respect? Perhaps you had better begin with a fiery pamphlet rousing our people in this matter. I should cheerfully defray all the expenses of publication.

Jamshedji’s noble vision was rudely shattered when he and his scholarly friend Burjorji Jamspji Padshah met Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, on 31st  December, 1898. Curzon straightaway brushed aside the proposal to set up an institute where philosophy, metaphysics, psychology and ethics would be taught along with natural science and biological science. Jamshedji  became utterly frustrated and hastily sent Padshah and his sister Jerbai to Calcutta to meet Vivekananda and seek his support  in the matter. Prabuddha  Bharata, a monthly journal started by Vivekananda as the official English mouthpiece of the Ramakrishna Mission, expressed its unbridled appreciation of the scheme proposed by Jamshetji in its editorial column of April,1899,

We are not aware if any project at once so opportune and so far-reaching in its beneficent effects was ever mooted in India, as that of the Post-graduate Research University of Mr. Tata. The scheme grasps the vital point of weakness in our national well-being with a clearness of vision and tightness of grip, the masterliness of which is only equalled by the munificence of the gift with which it is ushered to the public..Mr. Tata’s scheme paves the path of placing into the hands of Indians this knowledge of Nature-the preserver and the destroyer..that by having the knowledge, they might have power over her and be successful in the struggle for existence..We repeat: No idea more potent for good to the whole nation has seen the light of day in Modern India. Let the whole nation therefore, forgetful of class or sect interests, join in making it a success.

In the meantime, certain newspapers in India having vested interests started assailing or undermining the whole venture of Jamshedji. Nivedita  promptly came to Jamshedji’s aid and penned several articles in The Statesman urging people and in particular the intellectual community to support Jamshedji’s  endeavours to make India self reliant in scientific research. In 1900, the British government appointed Sir William Ramsay, the noted Scottish chemist and Nobel laureate, to study and assess Jamshetji’s proposal. Ramsay’s remarks virtually reverberated Curzon’s partisan approach. In 1900,Vivekananda left for the West for the second time accompanied by Nivedita. Nivedita was a respected teacher in Wimbledon, London, and as the Secretary of the reputed Seasame Club, London, had effective contacts with the powers that be in England. She teamed up with Sara Chapman Thorp Bull , the charismatic American writer, philanthropist, Suffragette leader and dedicated disciple of  Vivekananda, and convened a meeting of intellectuals in England to which Sir George Christopher Molesworth Birdwood, the Belgaum born Anglo-Indian naturalist, writer and educationist, was invited. After laying bare the British education policy in India, Nivedita highlighted Jamshedji’s proposal to set up a scientific research institute in India. Birdwood summarily rejected the proposal saying that it was not possible for Indians to run such an institute. He asserted that the universities in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were in a woeful state and in the past 50 years Calcutta University had failed to produce even a single outstanding student. Nivedita crossed swords with him and told him without mincing words that all these universities were controlled by the British government which had failed to administer them properly. She then told Birdwood that Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, who had represented India at the prestigious International Science Congress in Paris, was a product of Calcutta University and further that the Royal Society of London had thrown open its doors to Bose and had allowed him to use its library. Even though the meeting with Birdwood was abortive, the resolute Nivedita did not throw in the towel and wrote letters to educationists and intellectuals eliciting their response to Jamshedji’s proposal. William James, the celebrated American philosopher and psychologist, wholeheartedly supported Jamshetji’s proposal and wrote,

with regard to Mr Tata’s scheme for promoting higher education in India, I am of the opinion that for the attainment of his object he would do well to be guided by the best educated-on the permanent governing bodies of the institution, the four communities–Parsi, Mohammadan, Hindu and European ought always to be equally represented, no one in excess of any other–the management ought to be conducted entirely on national lines, all guarantees being now secured that native students to distinguish themselves in scientific studies , and to hold the higher posts in the Institution.’ Sir Patrick Geddes, the prodigious Scottish biologist, sociologist, geographer, philanthropist and town planner, conveyed to Nivedita a spurring message for Jamshetji, ‘Utilize all that is best in Europe, but do so by the help of all the best in India, not by abandoning it. Your new school of Science would thus acquire an individuality and an interest of its own.’ The untiring efforts of Nivedita gave Jamshetji a fresh ray of hope. In 1901, Jamshetji invited Vivekananda to Bombay through Josephine MacLeod, an American friend and devotee of Vivekananda. On 17th February,1901, Vivekananda wrote a letter to MacLeod reading, ‘ I am so glad you saw Mr Tata and find him so strong and good. I will, of course, accept an invitation if I am strong enough to go to Bombay.’ Vivekananda, however, could not make it to Bombay because of  his failing health but the pressure on the British government to clear Jamshedji’s proposal mounted steadily both in India and abroad. Vivekananda died on 4th July,1902 whilst in a state of deep meditation at the age of 39 and Jamshedji died on 19th  May,1904 at Bad Nauheim, Germany. The British government cleared Jamshetji’s proposal in 1905. In 1907, the Maharaja of Mysore, Sir Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar, who was an enthusiastic devotee of Vivekananda, donated about 371 acres of land in Bangalore for the institute. The constitution of the institute was approved by Lord Minto, the Viceroy of India, and the necessary Vesting Order was signed on 27th May,1909. Today the Indian Institute of Science, proudly standing upon its sprawling 800 acres estate in Bangalore and popularly known as the ‘Tata Institute’, is one of the  premier scientific research institutes in the world and the living embodiment of the realisation of the shared vision of  Vivekananda and Jamshetji, which was fortuitously forged accidentally on the high seas.


Advocate, Supreme Court of India

E-mail : bose.anoop@gmail.com

One thought on “Swami Vivekananda’s Historic Tête-À-Tête With Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata”

  1. A K Chakrabarti says:

    amazing to read the article with well researched information, especially about the contribution of sister Nivedita ( very little information is available about her contribution)

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