“Sisters and brothers of America”...and then shouts of applause caught the entire World’s First Parliament of Religions, Chicago, in a great wave of enthusiasm
September 11, 1893 – a date which became one of the great epoch-making events in the pages of world history. It’s been a century and a quarter (125 years) to that day, but its memories still remain afresh in the minds of people, not only in India but across the globe. This very day in Chicago, just with a few words at the World’s first Parliament of Religions, a young Indian won over the world and showed it the power of oneness.
The young man was Swami Vivekananda. As he arose to address the distinguished, critical and highly intellectual gathering, his face glowed, his eyes surveyed in a sweep the huge assembly before him, and the entire audience grew intent. Then, he began:
“Sisters and Brothers of America,”
And before he could utter another word, the whole Parliament was caught up in a great wave of enthusiasm as 7,000 people rose to their feet in tribute with applause. Everyone was cheering, cheering, cheering!
A philosopher, an orator, an artist, and a widely-travelled monk, Swami Vivekananda is a name to reckon with, not just for introducing Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world but also for his belief that noblest ideas can be brought “to the doorstep of even the poorest and the meanest”.
The world remembers him for his stellar speech at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. He spoke deeply on a number of factors which are extremely relevant to the issues we face in the contemporary world, especially in the country. He not only spoke at length about religious tolerance but also about promoting liberal sentiments among people.
Herald of Indian Philosophy
There are many reasons that mark the event as the herald of Hinduism and Indian philosophy on the world platform. Even today, the youth take pride in the fact that the young sage had received a two-minute standing ovation from the dignitaries present in the Chicago Convention. And the speech instantly turned the humble Indian into the ‘most popular and influential man in the parliament’.
When Swami Vivekananda stood in the Parliament of Religions, he talked about intolerance and religion and the importance of ending fanaticism in all forms.
In his address, Vivekananda quoted from the Bhagavad Gita and described Hinduism’s messages of faith and tolerance. He called on the world’s faithful to fight against “sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism.”
“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilisation, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time has come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal,” he had spoken.
In his stunning speeches, and his ‘Paper on Hinduism’, Vivekananda gave coherence and unity to the bewildering number of sects and beliefs that through untold ages have gathered and flowered under the name of Hinduism.
Perhaps, in those moments, not only was Hinduism re-created, but a new religion was given its first enunciation in the West – a religion, both, fulfilling the past and lighting up the future. His epoch-making representation of Hinduism and Indian philosophy raised India not only in the estimation of the West, but in its own estimation as well.
Narendranath Datta to Swami
Swami Vivekananda was born as Narendranath Datta on January 12, 1863, in a middle-class Bengali family of Calcutta (now Kolkata, West Bengal). Naren, as he was fondly called, grew up to be a youth of great charm and intelligence. In a pre-independent India hidebound by communal disharmony and sectarianism, this blithe spirit soared above the rest to become the manifestation of freedom – the ‘summum bonum’ of human life.
In 1881, Naren first met the noted Hindu mystic and teacher Ramakrishna Paramahansa. After his father Vishwanath Datta died in 1884, Ramakrishna became his spiritual focus. His devotion to Ramakrishna grew, and in 1886 Datta made formal vows as a Hindu monk, taking the new name of ‘Swami Vivekananda’.
Journey to the West
In 1888, Vivekananda left monastic life for one as a wandering monk. He travelled widely until 1893. During these years, he witnessed how India’s underprivileged masses lived in abject poverty. He came to believe it was his mission in life to uplift the poor through spiritual and practical education.
Vivekananda started his journey to the West on May 31, 1893, and visited several cities in Japan (including Nagasaki, Kobe, Yokohama, Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo), China and Canada en route to the United States. He reached Chicago on July 30, 1893, where the Parliament of Religions took place.
1893 & 2018
What Vivekananda spoke about in his then address, holds more relevance today than ever before. The faith’s underlying message, in 1893 and 2018, is unity and tolerance. In his famous speech, Vivekananda, who is regarded by many as more of a social reformer than a religious leader, spoke of the fact that India has sheltered “the remnants of the Israelites who came to South India seeking refugee from Roman tyranny, and remnants of the grand Zoroastrian nation”.
As the refugee crisis, be it Mexicans in the United States or Rohingyas in Myanmar, is worsening and countries are forced to take sides, Swami Vivekananda presented an India “which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the Earth”.
Another common message, then and now, is of dharma-righteousness for its own sake. With Indians debating the rise of religious intolerance in the country, Vivekananda had said that he was “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,” he had said. Following his speech, an American journalist had commented: “Vivekananda’s address before the parliament was broad as the heavens above us, embracing the best in all religions, as the ultimate universal religion -- charity to all mankind, good works for the love of God, not for fear of punishment or hope of reward.”
Much Has Changed
For Indian immigrants, much has changed in Chicago since 1893. Over a century ago, Vivekananda spent a night shivering in a railway yard before a Good Samaritan took him in. He cut an exotic figure in his flowing robes, with passersby pulling at his saffron turban as he walked on the streets. At the Parliament, Americans heard a Hindu monk speak on behalf of his religion for the first time. Today, Chicago and its suburbs have more than a dozen expansive Hindu temples. Discourses by the likes of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev attract packed audiences.
An inspiring spiritual and social leader, Vivekananda has left an indelible mark in history with his teachings, which are studied everywhere in India and abroad. The immortal soul passed away on the 4th of July, 1902, at the young age of 39, after suffering an enormous number of ailments in his brief life spent tirelessly in the service of man and God.
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