Copyright Ramakrishna Mission
The piece is divided into various chapters namely –
1. Background Story.
2. Response to Welcome.
3. Why We Disagree.
4. Paper on Hinduism.
6. Final Session.
7. Views on Address.
Publisher’s Note to the Twenty-third Impression
In the present impression which is being published on the occasion of the Centenary of Swami Vivekananda’s participation at the Parliament of Religions we have added a background story of the inspiring circumstances that made Swami Vivekananda’s appearance on the platform of the Parliament of Religions in 1893 possible. In the appendix we have presented to our readers what many eminent persons wrote about Swamiji and his speeches at the Parliament. Sanskrit quotations referred to by Swamiji in his speeches have also been provided with in the endnotes together with their references to source books. It is hoped that these renovations will help the readers to understand and appreciate Swamiji Vivekananda and his message delivered at Chicago in a deeper way.
A Wandering Monk in Search of a Way
After the passing away of Sri Ramakrishna in August 1886, Swami Vivekananda spent several years in intense spiritual practices, first in the newly established Ramakrishna Monastery at Baranagore, and later at other places, such as the plains of northern India and the Himalayas. He often wanted to enter the deepest Indian forests to lose himself in silent meditation, but every time some obstacle or other-some-times the sickness of a brother monk, sometimes the death of a devote-brought him back to a society beset with a thousand and one miseries. He gradually realized that he was not meant to live the life of an ordinary recluse, struggling for personal salvation. He was destined to work for the divine mission entrusted to him by his Master, Sri Ramakrishna. The Master had told him before his passing away that he would have to do ‘Mother’s work’, to ‘teach mankind’, and ‘to be like a banyan tree, giving shelter to the tired, weary travelers.’ At this time he felt an inner urge to wander alone over the length and breadth of India in search of a plan of action to follow.
In January 1891, leaving the company of his brother monks, he wandered from place to place, alone with God. At first he traveled in the north and later he went to the south, all the while studying closely the life of the people in every class of society. He was deeply moved by this experience. He wept to see the stagnant life of the Indian masses crushed down by ignorance and poverty, and was disturbed by the spell of materialistic ideas he noticed among the educated, who blindly imitated the glamour of the West. He saw that spirituality was at low ebb in the land of its birth. The picture of ancient India appeared before his eyes vividly in all its grandeur and glory, and the contrast was unbearable. India should not be allowed to drift this way. He visualized that India must become dynamic in all spheres of human activity and spiritualize the life of her own children as well as all mankind. He felt that he was the instrument chosen by the Lord to bring about this change.
Some enlightened people in different parts of India had previously advised Swamiji to go to the West, where his interpretation of Hinduism might be properly appreciated. At first Swamiji did not pay much attention to them. But when he later heard about the Parliament of Religions, which was to be held in Chicago in 1893, he expressed his desire to attend it, thinking that it might help him in carrying out his divine mission.
In the last lap of his journey he came to Kannyakumari where, sitting on the prominent rock just off the main coast, he reviewed his experiences during his wanderings and meditated deeply on India-her past, present, and future, the cause of her downfall, and the means for her resurrection. All these flashed through his mind, and he took the momentous decision to go to the West to raise funds for the uplift of the Indian masses. In exchange, he decided, he would give the rich spiritual treasures that India had accumulated through the centuries and the he himself had inherited from his Master. With this decision he returned to the mainland. But still he was not sure whether the plan was in accordance with the divine will. He prayed and prayed for days together to the Mother and to his Master for guidance. Shortly afterwards, a symbolic dream convinced him that he had the needed divine command. He saw the figure of Sri Ramakrishna walking from the seashore into the ocean, beckoning him to follow. Further, Holy Mother, Sri Sarada Devi, to whom he had written earlier, sent her consent and blessings. All doubts were now gone. He was determined to go. Finally, with the money collected by his young disciples by begging from door to door as well as that given by the Maharaja of Mysore, the Raja of Ramnad, and the Raja of Khetri, Swamiji sailed for America from Mumbai (then Bombay) on 31 May 1893.
Arrival in America and Becoming a Delegate
Swamiji reached Chicago at the end of July via Colombo, Singapore, Japan and Vancouver. Arriving there he was shocked to learn from the Information Bureau that the Parliament of Religions would not commence until September and that no delegate would be admitted without proper credentials from a bona fide organization. Moreover, the time for admittance and registration of delegates was already over. Swamiji did not have any credentials whatsoever. In sending Swamiji, his disciples in Chennai (then Madras), in their unbounded enthusiasm and faith, had taken it for granted that he had only to appear and he would be given a chance. The Swami too did not foresee the difficulties in the way, as he was sure he was moving towards the fulfillment of a divine mission.
Swamiji also found that living in Chicago was very costly. As he did not have enough money, he left for Boston, where things were cheaper. On the way a wealthy traveler in the train, Miss Katherine Abbot Sanborn, was attracted by his noble bearing and charming conversation. She became more interested when she learned the purpose of his coming to America. She said: “Well, Swami, I invite you to come to my home to live. Perhaps something will turn up in your favour.” The invitation was a Godsend for the Swami, who readily consented and started living at her village home in Massachusetts near Boston. Through her Swamiji became acquainted with Mr. J. H. Wright, a professor of Greek at Harvard University. After a four-hour conversation with Swamiji, the Professor was so impressed by his learning and wisdom that he took it upon himself to arrange for his admittance to the Parliament of Religions as a delegate. “This is the only way you can be introduced to the nation at large,” he told Swamiji. Swamiji had explained his difficulties and had said that he had no credentials. Thereupon Prof. Wright had exclaimed, “To ask you, Swami, for credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine.” He at once wrote to the Chairman of the Committee for the Selection of the Delegates, who happened to be his friend: “Here is an man who is more learned than all our professors put together.” He also gave Swamiji letters of introduction to the Committee that looked after the Oriental delegates, and bought him a ticket to Chicago. Unfortunately, when Swamiji arrived in Chicago on 9 September, he found to his dismay that he had mislaid the address of the Committee. He made enquiries of passers-by, but it being the northeast side of the city where mostly Germans lived, they could not understand him. The chilly nights of September were coming on.
So Swamiji, who would soon shake America by his address at the Parliament, found no other alternative than to take shelter in an empty boxcar in the railroad freight yard. He soon freed himself from all anxieties and slept there, trusting in the guidance of the Lord. In the morning he set out to find his way. He soon came to one of the rich quarters of the city. Extremely tired and hungry, he sought help from house to house as a sannyasin in India would. Seeing his soiled clothes and worn out appearance, the servants in the houses treated him rudely, sometimes slamming the door in his face. After a while, exhausted and resigning himself to the will of the Lord, he sat down on the roadside. Just then the door of a fashionable residence opposite him opened and a lady of regal appearance came out and spoke to him in a soft voice, “Sir are you a delegate to the Parliament of Religions?” Swamiji told her of his difficulties. She at once invited him into her house and attended to his immediate needs. Later, when Swamiji had taken food and had rested, she took him to the office of the Parliament of Religions. He was gladly accepted as a delegate and lodged with the other Oriental guests. His deliverer was Mrs. George W. Hale. She and her children became Swamiji’s warmest friends.
A new spirit now took possession of Swamiji. He was convinced beyond doubt that the Lord was with him. His days were spent in prayer and meditation, and in the earnest longing that he might be made a true instrument of the Lord, a true spokesman of Hinduism, a true bearer of his Master’s message.
On the Platform of the Parliament of Religions
The Parliament of Religions was an adjunct of the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Some of the declared objectives of the Parliament were to present the important truths held and taught in common by different religions of the world and to bring the nations of the earth into a more friendly relationship. But many thought and hoped that the Parliament would prove the superiority of their own religion over the others. However, through divine dispensation, as it were, the validity of all religions ultimately became the keynote of the Parliament and Swami Vivekananda became the most impressive and eloquent mouthpiece of that central theme.
The first session of the Parliament was held on Monday, 11 September 1893, in the spacious hall of the Art Institute. Its huge galleries were packed with more than 4,000 people-men and women representing the best culture of the United States. Representatives of all organized religions-Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Mohammedanism, Shintoism, Theism, (Brahmo Samaj) and Zoroastrianism were there, and among them was Swami Vivekananda rapt in silent prayer, attracting the attention of the audience by his commanding presence. The Parliament opened with a prayer, after which the Chairman, Reverend J. H. Barrows, introduced the delegates one by one, who then read their prepared speeches. But Swamiji had no such written speech with him and he had never before addressed such a huge assembly. He did not speak in the morning session but went on postponing the summons from the chair. In the afternoon, when he could no longer put off his turn, he stepped up to rostrum, his face glowing like fire. Inwardly bowing down to Devi Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge, he began to speak. No sooner had he addressed the assembly as ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’ than a great wave of enthusiasm went through the audience. They rose to their feet with shouts of applause, as if they had gone mad. Everyone was cheering cheering and cheering. The Swami was bewildered. For two full minutes he attempted to speak, but the wild enthusiasm of the audience would not allow it. Others had addressed them in the customary manner but Swamiji had touched the deepest chord of their heart by discarding formality and stressing the kinship of all people. After the applause subsided the Swami made a brief speech.
When Swamiji had finished and sat down, exhausted with emotion, there was another tremendous ovation. The next day all the papers lionized him as the greatest figure and the best speaker of the Parliament. The unknown young monk became known throughout the United States of America. ‘His life-size portraits were posted on the roadside in Chicago with his name written beneath it, and many showed reverence to it with bowed heads.’
In his speeches at the Parliament Swamiji stressed again and again the idea of Validity of all religions and their harmony. Every religion, he pointed out, has produced men and women of most exalted character endowed with holiness, purity and charity. This vindicated the validity of each of them. He, therefore appealed to every person to preserve his or her individuality and at the same time to learn and assimilate the good points, the spirit of others religions.
Another idea that Swamiji forcefully championed at the Parliament was that man is only apparently a mortal body or a mind but is really a divine soul, a spirit, pure and immortal the master of matter and mind. Swamiji pointed out that the goal of human life is to become divine by manifesting this divinity through our every thought and action. Herein lies the solution to all our problems-individual or collective.
We shall now present the soul-stirring lectures of Swamiji in his own words.