KEY IDEAS in Swami Vivekananda's Addresses at the World Parliament of Religions, 1893

We are now celebrating the 125th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s historic addresses at the World’s Parliament of Religions held at Chicago in 1893. Here we will try to understand the core ideas of each of Swamiji’s six addresses at the Parliament. We will try to explore whether these ideas are relevant today and we will also try to analyse the extent of their relevance.


The first and the most famous of Swamiji’s addresses to the Parliament was his ‘Response to Welcome’ that began with the words, ‘Sisters and brothers of America’. No other speaker at the Parliament gave the opening speech with this greeting. However, Swamiji’s greeting was applauded not only because it contained the message of fraternity, not only because it gave precedence to women, whom Swamiji worshipped as manifestations of the Divine Mother, but because behind those words of greeting were the realisation and wisdom that all beings and all universe is one. Then, came his expression of gratitude that was connected to the tradition and heritage that he represented, that of an ancient Hindu monastic order.


After this, Swamiji wasted  no  time  and  directly  hit  his  core idea and also the core message of his master, Sri Ramakrishna, which was supposedly the core message of the Parliament also—the validity of all religions and  faith-traditions. He explained how he belonged to both a nation and also a religion that did not persecute anyone but rather offered shelter to whoever came to them. Swamiji ended his first address to the Parliament on a quite hopeful note that  all  will  realise  that  they  were  all  trying  to  reach the same goal, albeit by different paths. Even today, we do not seem to have understood this message. Everyone is adamant in proving one’s faith-tradition or religion to be unique and the only valid path to God. The Muslim does not like the  Hindu, the Hindu does not like the Muslim, the Christian hates all others, the Jew does not care about other world  views,  and  the  Buddhist  does  not  want  to accept any doctrine other than what she or he perceives  as  Buddhism.  It is highly unlikely that the past masters or founders of any of these religions would recognise them as they are practised today.


Swamiji’s second address at the Parliament, ‘Why We Disagree’, gives us reason enough to believe that the hopeful note with which he ended his first address was not met with much concurrence among the orthodox participants of the Parliament. In this address, Swamiji told a story about an interaction between a frog in a well with a frog that came to the well from the ocean. Swamiji urged us to go beyond obstacles, transcend boundaries, and try to interact with the faiths other than one’s own and understand them.  Doing  so  would  enable  us to not have pigeonholed thoughts and ideas about God  and  would  help  us  live  in  harmony,  even  if there are countless ways to reach God.


In his third address at the Parliament, ‘Paper on Hinduism’, he described the age-old antiquity of his religion and explained that Hinduism is not based on any finite text, was not founded by any person, and that its basis are eternal laws that were experienced by rishis. He told that according to Hinduism the creation has no beginning or end. He said that the idea or sense of ‘I’ is eternal and that it is not the body or the mind, which are transitory, but beyond them and eternal in nature. He explained how tendencies are acquired from birth to birth and how these tendencies govern the nature of successive births. He explained that ignorance or the cause of the spirit becoming embodied is not known, that ignorance is nonetheless a fact, and it does not matter what caused ignorance but the goal is to know  that  our  true  nature  is  of  the  eternal  and free  spirit. 


Swamiji then denounced the idea of calling human beings as sinners, thus directly attacking the idea of sin in Judaeo-Abrahamic religions.  He  also  critiqued  the  idea  of  loving God  with  an expectation and told  how  the  ideal of Hinduism is to have selfless love for God. He said that the goal of spiritual or religious life in Hinduism is to become perfect and ultimately attain infinite bliss.  He drew a parallel in science in that both science and religion are engaged in the search for unity. 


Swamiji told how Hinduism has many hues and colours of traditions and sects, only so that every person can practise religion according to one’s own inclination and choose one’s path to God, as per one’s tendencies. He quashed the idea that idolatry is bad as is believed generally by Western religions. Instead, Swamiji said that idolatry is helpful for the ordinary minds to understand higher ideas. He said that no one travels from error to truth but from lower truth to higher truth. 


Towards the end of this address, Swamiji said that a universal religion can only be one that has no specific place or time and that will be infinite, and open to all. 125 years after Swamiji’s address, we are yet to find such a universal religion. Even if we cannot create such a universal religion, it is time that we do not meddle with the religious choices of a human being, that we allow every person on this earth to have one’s own conception of God.


The fourth address, ‘Religion Not the Crying Need of India’, is Swamiji’s quite direct way of telling the preachers of other religions, particularly Christians to not to teach religion to Indians. He said that India does not need religion but wealth. Even today, this is true to a great extent. India does not religion, but it needs development of society, good education, healthcare, nutritious food, security, and an enlightened citizenship.


In his fifth address, ‘Buddhism, the Fulfilment of Hinduism’, Swamiji showed how Buddhism is not very different from Hinduism.  This he did, probably because, he saw an excessive harping on the uniqueness of Buddhism. This situation is the same even now, when the Buddhists and the Hindus revel in establishing their differences, instead of seeing their similarities. Swamiji cautioned that India’s downfall started when it segregated Buddhism from Hinduism.


In his sixth and final address, ‘Address at the Final Session’, Swamiji affirmed that the lesson learnt from the Parliament was that no one religion can claim itself to be the ultimate. The solution is not to get converted to some religion, leaving the religion one is born into. Rather, the solution lies in cultivating a peaceful and harmonious coexistence of numerous religions and faith-traditions. Swamiji pitied anyone who thinks that her or his religion will alone prevail.  Now, after 125 years, we need to do some serious soul-searching and ask ourselves this question: ‘Do I believe there can be any number of paths to God?’ If we believe so, we will be saved; else we will be swallowed by hatred and destruction.


Author is Editor of Prabuddha Bharata 


To read all articles by the Author


To read Swamiji’s complete address


To visit Rock Memorial Kanyakumari  


To see pictures of Swamiji’s life displayed at the Vivekananda House Chennai


To see pictures of Schools inspired by Swami Vivekananda


Swamijis on Missionaries and Christianity at Detroit


This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To subscribe

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