Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Swami Vivekananda & John D Rockefeller

In the late 1800s, Swami Vivekananda went to Chicago to attend the Parliament of Religions. He became an ardent and outspoken advocate of human values. One of the people he met in Chicago was John D Rockefeller, who had made a great fortune in the booming oil business at the time. Rockefeller was introduced to the Swami Vivekananda by a friend. Madame Emma Calve, a French lady disciple narrated this episode to Madame Drinette Verdier, who has written about their meeting in her diary.

Rockefeller probably came for a lark, meaning that he wasn’t really interested in meeting Swami Vivekananda; he had been told that a saffron-clad monk was electrifying the people of Chicago, and it is possible that he went out of curiosity. Swami Vivekananda didn’t even look up from his desk when Rockefeller entered. He continued to do his work. After a while, he looked up at Rockefeller, who was not really used to being treated like a commoner. Rockefeller took a seat and conversation ensued.

It became apparent to Swamiji that Rockefeller had lots of wealth and Swami Vivekananda posed him a question, “If you have that much more money than other people, do you think that much smarter than other people?” Rockefeller replied, “Of course.” If he wasn’t a hundred times smarter, he wouldn’t have a hundred times the money, would he?

Swamiji left him with the thought that he may not be one hundred times smarter, he maybe just three times smarter. If he had made a hundred times more money by being three times smarter, then perhaps he was merely an instrument through which this money has to go back to somebody else. “Why don’t you think about it? And why don’t you consider leaving some of your money for other people?”

This sounded absolutely ridiculous to Rockefeller, and he departed with the polite statement that he had worked really hard to make his money, and he had absolutely no intention of leaving it to other people. But curiously, three weeks later, he came back to see Swami Vivekananda, this time of his own accord. He threw on his table a piece of paper, by which he endowed a certain sum of money — I forget how much it was, but it was small by Rockefeller’s standards — for some noble purpose. He asked the Swami Vivekananda, “Are you happy now that I have done this?” Swami Vivekananda responded, “Why should I be happy? You have to ask yourself whether you have left enough out of the total wealth that you have?”

It took another 15 years after this episode, that Rockefeller set up the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913, which has gone on to do an enormous amount of good work in society over the last several decades. The story illustrates the point of trusteeship. When you have earned a lot of money, whose money is it? Did that money come to you entirely because of yourself or is it possible that you are merely an instrument through which you should chanalise it back to society? It is a very interesting question to ponder. I narrate this story, because the element of trusteeship comes out so clearly in the conversation between Swami Vivekananda and John D Rockefeller.

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