The World's Parliament of Religions, which was held in the City of Chicago in September 1893, was undoubtedly one of the greatest events in the history of the world marking an era in the history of religions, especially of Hinduism. Its full significance can be cognised only with the lapse of time. From all parts of the world delegates came, representing every form of organised religious belief. It was not only a Parliament of Religions; it was a parliament of humanity. If it had done nothing else than to make the whole body of human society aware by contrast of its “Unity in Diversity” and “Diversity in Unity” of the religious outlook, it would still have been unequalled among the world’s conventions in character and importance. It unified the religious vision of humanity, which was the motive of the unprejudiced workers who made possible this ensemble of religious ideas and creeds. But it did far more than that. It roused a wave of new thought in the Western world, causing it to be conscious of the East, and its contrasting thought. In the language of the Hon. Mr. Merwin-Marie Snell, President of the Scientific Section of the Parliament of Religions:
“One of its chief advantages has been in the great lesson which it has taught the Christian World, especially to the people of the United States, namely, that there are other religions more venerable than Christianity, which surpass it in philosophical depth, in spiritual intensity, in independent vigour of thought, and in breadth and sincerity of human sympathy, while not yielding to it a single hair’s breadth in ethical beauty and efficiency. Eight great non-Christian religious groups were represented in its deliberations — Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Mohammedanism and Mazdaism.”
Some of the highest ecclesiastical dignitaries in America had preached the necessity and the advantages of such a Parliament for some time; and when the Chicago World’s Fair was organised, it seemed to be the proper medium and opportunity. News of the fact that the Parliament was to be held was heralded broadcast to all parts of the globe. Committees of various characters were formed to organise it on a proper basis, and invitations were sent out to the heads or to the executive bodies of all acknowledged religious organisations the world over. Stipulations were made and instructions given; and the process of sending delegates mapped out. Every religious creed was to send its own delegate or delegates as the case might be, and reception committees were to receive them on their arrival in Chicago. There were many necessary formalities to be observed in order to systematise the movement. Unfortunately, the group of disciples who had sent the Swami as a representative of Hinduism to the Parliament were unaware of these. They had simply seen the worth of the man and his ideas; and they had felt sure that he could introduce himself, as, in one sense, he did.
If one could visualise the Parliament of Religions, one would see a great concourse of some of the most distinguished personages of the world ; a great mass of humanity, varying from seven to ten thousand in number marching in almost military formation to their seats and joining the sessions of the Parliament. Many of the greatest philosophers of the world were in daily attendance. More than one thousand papers were read by the different delegates. This gives some impression of the vastness of the undertaking and also of its vast importance. In connection with the Parliament, there were sections, one of which was the Scientific Section, which we mention in particular because the Swami spoke several times before it. The Hon. Mr. Merwin-Marie Snell, who presided over it, became a great friend of the Swami and an ardent advocate of Hinduism.
A noted American writer, speaking of the Parliament of Religions and of Swami Vivekananda, says:
“Prior to the Convention of the Parliament of Religions, adjunct to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, which was convened in Chicago, little was known of Vivekananda in this country. On that auspicious occasion, however, he appeared in all his magnificent grandeur. It was on Monday, September 11th, at 10 a.m. when the opening address was delivered at the Art Institute, Chicago, by Dr. Barrows, from whence the following few words: ‘Since faith in a Divine Power, to whom men believe they owe service and worship, has been like the sun, a life-giving and fructifying potency in man’s intellectual and moral development; since religion lies back of Hindu literature with its marvellous and mystic developments of European arts, it did not appear that religion any more than education, art, or electricity should be excluded from the Columbian Exposition.’
“On that memorable Monday morning there sat upon the platform of the great Hall of Columbus representatives of the religious hopes and beliefs of twelve hundred millions of the human race. It was indeed impressive. In the centre sat Cardinal Gibbons, highest prelate of the Roman Catholic Church on the Western Continent. He was seated upon a Chair of State and opened the meeting with prayer. On the right and left of him were gathered the Oriental delegates, whose brilliant attire vied with his own scarlet robes in brilliancy. Conspicuous among the followers of Brahma, Buddha and Mohammed was an eloquent monk from India, Vivekananda by name. He was clad in gorgeous red apparel and wore a large yellow turban, his remarkably fine features and bronze complexion standing out prominently in the great throng. Beside him sat Nagarkar of the Brahmo Samaj, representative of the Hindu Theists; next, was Dharmapala, Ceylon’s Buddhist representative; next came Mazoomdar, leader of the Theists in India. Amongst the world’s choicest divines these and many more, whose names would be more or less familiar, must be left out for want of space. This will suffice to show the setting with which our subject was surrounded. ‘In contact with the learned minds of India we have inspired a new reverence for the Orient.’ In numerical order Vivekananda’s position was number thirty-one.”
The Swami himself describes to a disciple the opening of the Parliament1 and his own state of mind in replying to the address of welcome offered to the delegates, in the following words:
“On the morning of the opening of the Parliament, we all assembled in a building called the Art Palace, . . . Men from all nations were there. From India were Mazoomdar of the Brahmo Samaj and Nagarkar of Bombay, Mr. Gandhi representing the Jains, and Mr. Chakravarti representing Theosophy with Mrs. Annie Besant. Of these men, Mazoomdar and I were of course old friends, and Chakravarti knew me by name. There was a grand procession, and we were all marshalled on to the platform. Imagine a hall below and a huge gallery above, packed with six or seven thousand men and women representing the best culture of the country, and on the platform learned men of all the nations on the earth. And I who never spoke in public in my life, to address this august assemblage!! It was opened in great form with music and ceremony and speeches; then the delegates were introduced one by one, and they stepped up and spoke! Of course my heart was fluttering and my tongue nearly dried up; I was so nervous, and could not venture to speak in the morning. Mazoomdar made a nice speech — Chakravarti a nicer one, and they were much applauded. They were all prepared and came with ready-made speeches. I was a fool and had none, but bowed down to Devi Saraswati and stepped up, and Dr. Barrows introduced me. I made a short speech . . . and when it was finished, I sat down almost exhausted with emotion.”
Indeed, that sea of faces might have given even a practised orator stage-fright. To speak before such a distinguished, critical and highly intellectual audience required intense self-confidence. The Svvami had seen the imposing procession, the huge assembly, the keen, eager faces of the masses, the shrewd, authoritative and dignified countenances of the Princes of the Christian churches, who sat on the platform. He was, as it were, lost in amazement by the splendour of it all. What had he, the unsophisticated Parivrajaka, the simple Indian Sadhu in common with this grand function and these high functionaries? Ay, he had much to do with them, as was shortly to be seen. His very person had attracted the attention of thousands. Amongst Archbishops, Bishops, Priests and Theologians, the many singled him out both by reason of his apparel and his commanding presence. He himself was alternately wrapt in silent prayer and stirred by the eloquence of those speakers who had preceded him. Several times he had been called upon to speak but he had said, “No, not now” until the Chairman was puzzled and wondered if he would speak at all. At length, in the late afternoon when the Chairman insisted, the Swami arose.
His face glowed like fire. His eyes surveyed in a sweep the huge assembly before him. The whole audience grew intent; a pin could have been heard to fall. Bowing to Devi Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge, he addressed his audience as, “Sisters and Brothers of America.” And with that, before he had uttered another word, the whole Parliament was caught up by a great wave of enthusiasm. Hundreds rose to their feet with shouts of applause. The Parliament had gone mad; everyone was cheering, cheering, cheering! The Swami was bewildered. For full two minutes he attempted to speak, but the wild enthusiasm of the audience prevented it.
When silence was restored, the Swami began his address by thanking the youngest of nations in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world, the Vedic Order of Sannyasins, and introducing Hinduism as “the Mother of Religions, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.” And he quoted two beautiful, illustrative passages, taken from the scriptures of Hinduism: As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they may appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee" And the other: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him ; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to Me”
It was only a short speech, but its spirit of universality, its fundamental earnestness and broad-mindedness completely captivated the whole assembly. The Swami announced the universality of religious truths and the sameness of the Goal of all religious realisations. And that he did so, was because he had sat at the feet of a Man of Realisation, in far-off Dhakshineswar, and had learned from his Master, through actual contact and personal test, the truth that all religions were one, that they were all paths leading to the selfsame Goal, the selfsame God. When the Swami sat down exhausted with emotion, the Parliament gave him a great ovation significant of their approval.
With the exception of a short address on “Why We Disagree,” in which he pointed out, by referring to the frog in the well that thought his little well the whole universe, that the insularity of religious outlook was the source of fanaticism, the Swami did not speak before the Parliament proper until September 19, when he read his celebrated paper on “Hinduism.” This was a summary of the philosophy, psychology, and general ideas and statements of Hinduism. Though the Swami was not the only Indian or even the only Bengali present, he was the only representative of Hinduism proper. There were other Hindu delegates, who stood for societies, or churches or sects, but the Swami stood for Hinduism in its universal aspect. He gave forth the ideas of the Hindus concerning the soul and its destiny; he expounded the doctrines of the Vedanta philosophy, which harmonises all religious ideas and all forms of worship, viewing them as various presentations of truth and as various paths of realisation thereunto. He preached the religious philosophy of Hinduism, which declares the soul to be eternally pure, eternally free, only appearing under the bondage of matter as limited and manifold. He spoke of the attainment of the Goal — the perception of Oneness — to be the result of innumerable efforts of many lives. He asserted that the soul was never created. And he went on to say that death meant only a change of centre from one body to another and that one's present was determined by one’s past action and the future by the present! He said that in order to realise Divinity, the self which says, “I” and “mine” must vanish, but this did not mean the denial but the utmost fulfilment of true individuality. By overcoming the small egoistical self, centred in selfishness, one attained to infinite, universal individuality. “Then alone,” he said, “can death cease when I am one with life; then alone can misery cease when I am one with happiness itself; then alone can all errors cease when I am one with knowledge itself; and this is the necessary scientific conclusion. Science has proved to me that physical individuality is a delusion, that really my body is one continuously changing mass in an unbroken ocean of matter, and Advaitam (unity) is the necessary conclusion with my other counterpart, the Soul.” The overwhelming spirit of his address was the sense of Oneness. And he insisted that the realisation of the Oneness of the Self, ay, the very becoming and being of Divinity, inevitably led to the seeing of the Divinity manifest everywhere.
And inspired with this vision like another Vedic sage, he addressed the vast mass of humanity before him as “heirs of Immortal Bliss” and exclaimed with apostolic power
“Yea, the Hindu refuses to call you sinners! Ye are the children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth — sinners? It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature. Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that ypu are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; ye are not matter, ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter.” “Thus it is,” he continued, “that the Vedas proclaim not a dreadful combination of unforgiving laws, not an endless prison of cause and effect, but that at the head of all these laws, in and through every particle of matter and force, stands One, ‘by whose command the wind blows, the fire burns, the clouds rain and death stalks upon the earth.’ And what is his nature? He is everywhere, the Pure and Formless One, the Almighty and the All-merciful,” and “knowing Him alone you shall be saved from death over again and attain Immortality.”
But what of the polytheism in Hinduism? He explained the psychological necessity of lower forms of religious ideas and worship, of prayers and ceremonies as aids to the purification of mind, and of image-worship as a help to spiritual concentration. There can be no idolatry where the image stands as an objectified image of Divinity. And he said: With the Hindus, more over, religion is not centred in doctrinal assent or dissent, but in REALISATION. Surveyed in this light, forms and symbols and ceremonials are seen to be the supports, the helps of spiritual childhood, which the Hindu gradually transcends as he progresses towards spiritual manhood; even these helps are not necessary for every one or compulsory in Hinduism. He saw “Unity in Variety” in religion, and said, “Contradictions come from the same truth adapting itself to the varying circumstances of different natures. And these little variations are necessary for purposes of adaptation. But in the heart of everything the same truth reigns.” In conclusion he presented the idea of a universal religion, having no temporal, spatial or sectarian bounds, but including every attitude of the human mind, from the savage to the most enlightened, in a grand synthesis, all going in their own way towards the Goal.
“Offer such a religion and all the nations will follow you. Asoka’s council was a council of the Buddhist faith. Akbar’s, though more to the purpose, was only a parlour-meeting. It was reserved for America to proclaim to all quarters of the globe that the Lord is in every religion.
“May He who is the Brahman of the Hindus, the Ahura-Mazda of the Zoroastrians, the Buddha of the Buddhists, the Jehovah of the Jews, the Father in Heaven of the Christians, give strength to you to carry out your noble idea. The star arose in the East; it travelled steadily towards the West, sometimes dimmed and sometimes effulgent, till it made a circuit of the world, and now it is again rising on the very horizon of the East, the borders of the Sanpo, a thousandfold more effulgent than it ever was before.
“Hail Columbia, motherland of liberty! It has been given to thee, who never dipped her hand in her neighbour's blood, who never found out that the shortest way of becoming rich was by robbing one’s neighbours, it has been given to thee to inarch at the vanguard of civilisation with the flag of harmony.”
Certainly it is not going beyond the bounds of just appreciation to say that the Swami’s paper on Hinduism was the most unique and prophetic utterance in the history of religions, pointing out the truth of Oneness, of Realisation and of the Divinity of Man. Its ringing declarations of an all-inclusive ideal sounded the death-knell of the bigotry and sectarianism which had drenched the earth so often with human blood and barred the progress of civilisation in the name of religion. The unique feature of its contents was its universal toleration and its sense and spirit of religious co-operation. It had no note of criticism, or of antagonism. Its spirit was synthetic. It went counter to many of the dogmas of the various sects, yet none were attacked. His definition of a universal religion, so startling in its novelty, struck at the very root of all sectarian thought. He spoke with authority, for he was a man of realisation. He had preached in all the solemnity of direct vision, the realisation of the mystical spirit in religion as opposed to the blind credulity which most creeds uncompromisingly demand. Through him the whole burden and effulgence of the Divine consciousness bore in upon the Parliament, and thousands of those who were brought up in a special religious belief saw on that day the universality of Truth and the Oneness of all religious realisation.
The Swami undoubtedly in that hour attained the very climax of his illustrious career, preaching, through the Parliament, to all peoples of the earth, the sovereignty of Human Nature, its Divinity, and its Unity. And in that hour he was acclaimed by that vast representative assembly of nations as a Man with a Message, as an Apostle of a New Order of Religious Thought; he became a world-figure, his name ever to be associated with the Gospel of the Divinity of Man. Through this address alone, he became the impelling spirit of the New Theology in the West. He made, in short, Christianity itself re-value its contents. But the greatest service was to India herself by ushering Hinduism into the West and impressing on the Western mind the inestimable richness of its contents.
Sister Nivedita has with great insight best described the general import of his address at the Parliament, thus:2
“Of the Swami's address before the Parliament, of Religions, it may be said that when he began to speak, it was of the religious ideas of the Hindus; but when he ended, Hinduism had been created. . . .
“For it was no experience of his own that rose to the lips of the Swami Vivekananda there. He did not even take advantage of the occasion, to tell the story of his Master. Instead of either of these, it was the religious consciousness of India that spoke through him, the message of his whole people, as determined by their whole past. And as he spoke, in the youth and noonday of the West, a nation, sleeping in the shadows of the darkened half of earth, on the far side of the Pacific, waited in spirit for the words that would be borne on the dawn that was travelling towards them, to reveal to them the secret of their own greatness and strength.
“Others stood beside the Swami Vivekananda, on the same platform as he, as apostles of particular creeds and churches. But it was his glory that he came to preach a religion to which each of these was, in his own words, ‘Only a travelling, a coming up, of different men and women, through various conditions and circumstances to the same goal.’ He stood there, as he declared, to tell of One who had said of them all, not that one or another was true, in this or that respect, or for this or that reason, but that ‘ALL these are threaded upon Me, as pearls upon a string. Wherever thou seest extraordinary holiness and extraordinary power, raising and purifying humanity, know thou that I am there.’ To the Hindu, says Vivekananda, Man is not travelling from error to truth, but climbing up from truth to truth, from truth that is lower to truth that is higher. This, and the teaching of Mukti — the doctrine that ‘Man is to become divine by realising the divine,’ that religion is perfected in us only when it has led us to ‘Him who is the one life in a universe of death, Him who is the constant basis of an ever-changing world, that One who is the only soul, of which all souls are but delusive manifestations’ — may be taken as the two great outstanding truths which, authenticated by the longest and most complex experience in human history, India proclaimed through him to the modern world of the West.
“For India herself, the short address forms, as has been said, a brief Charter of Enfranchisement. Hinduism in its wholeness, the speaker bases on the Vedas, but he spiritualises our conception of the word, even while he utters it. To him, all that is true is Veda. ‘By the Vedas he says,’ ‘no books are meant. They mean the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times.’ Incidentally, he discloses his conception of the Sanatana Dharma . . . . To his mind, there could be no sect, no school, no sincere religious experience of the Indian people — however like an aberration it might seem to the individual — that might rightly be excluded from the embrace of Hinduism. And of this Indian Mother-Church, according to him, the distinctive doctrine is that of the Ishta Devata, the right of each soul to choose its own path, and to seek God in its own way . . .
“Yet would not this inclusion of all, this freedom of each, be the glory of Hinduism that it is, were it not for her supreme call, of sweetest promise, ‘Hear, ye children of immortal bliss! Even ye that dwell in higher spheres! For I have found that Ancient One who is beyond all darkness, all delusion. And knowing Him, ye also shall be saved from death.’ Here is the word for the sake of which all the rest exists and has existed. Here is the crowning realisation, into which all others are resolvable.”
Following his paper on “Hinduism” the Swami spoke on “Religion not the Crying Need of India” in which he commented on the fact that it was not religion of which the Indians stood in need, but bread. It was a short address, but therein one finds embodied his solution of India's pressing problems. He stated also, that what had brought him to the far West was to seek aid for his impoverished people. By his words the Parliament was made aware that the man who stood before it was not only a priest but a patriot as well. The Swami gave addresses before the Scientific Section also. The first occasion on which he spoke in these conferences, as recorded in the Rev. J. H. Barrow's book on the World's Parliament of Religions, was at the one held on the morning of September 22, to discuss “Orthodox Hinduism and the Vedanta Philosophy." That same afternoon the Swami again spoke on “The Modern Religions of India.” Another conference was held on the 23rd on the subject of the foregoing addresses. On the 25th the Swami spoke in the afternoon session, the subject of the address being, “The Essence of the Hindu Religion” The reader might be informed here that four other addresses in these conferences were given by the Swami.
On the 26th the Swami delivered before the Parliament of Religions a short address called “Buddhism, the Fulfilment of Hinduism.” He pointed out that Hinduism was divided, as it were, into two branches, one being the ceremonial, and the other the purely spiritual. Buddha interpreted the spiritual elements of the Dharma, with their natural social conclusions, to the people. He was the first Teacher in the world to carry on missionary work and to conceive the idea of proselytising. “Sakya Muni,” said the Swami, “came not to destroy, but he was the fulfilment, the logical conclusion, the logical development of the religion of the Hindus.” Eventually he said, “Hinduism cannot live without Buddhism nor Buddhism without Hinduism,” and that the need in India today was to “join the wonderful intellect of the Brahmana with the heart, the noble soul, the wonderful humanising power of the Great Master.”
The international aspect of the Parliament of Religions took seventeen days, and more than a thousand papers were read before it. The Swami was allowed to speak longer than the ordinary half-hour, and being a popular speaker was always put down last to hold the audience. The people would sit from ten in the morning to ten at night, with only a recess of half-an-hour for luncheon, and listen to paper after paper in which most of them were not interested, to hear their favourite. Such was their enthusiasm!
On the 27th, the Swami delivered his “Address at the Final Session” and here he again rises to one of his happiest and most luminous moods by declaring:
“The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth . . . .
“If the Parliament, of Religions has shown anything to the world it is this. It has proved to the world that holiness, purity, and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world and that every system lias produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of his resistance: ‘Help and not Fight,’ ‘Assimilation and not Destruction,’ ‘Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.’”
Thus did the unknown monk blossom into a world-figure, the Parivrajaka of solitary days in India become the Prophet of a New Dispensation!
On all sides his name resounded. Life-size pictures of him were seen posted up in the streets of Chicago, with the words “The Monk Vivekananda” beneath them, and passers-by would stop to do reverence with bowed head. The press rang with his fame. The best known and most conservative of the metropolitan newspapers proclaimed him as a Prophet and a Seer. Indeed, The New York Herald spoke of him in these words:
“He is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions. After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.”
The Boston Evening Transcript wrote of him:
“He is a great favourite at the Parliament from the grandeur of his sentiments and his appearance as well. If he merely crosses the platform he is applauded; and this marked approval of thousands he accepts in a child like spirit of gratification without a trace of conceit . . . . At the Parliament of Religions they used to keep Vivekananda until the end of the programme to make people stay till the end of the session. On a warm day, when a prosy speaker talked too long and people began going home by hundreds, the Chairman would get up and announce that Swami Vivekananda would give a short address just before the benediction. Then he would have the peaceable hundreds perfectly in tether. The four thousand fanning people in the Hall of Columbus would sit smiling and expectant, waiting for an hour or two of other men’s speeches, to listen to Vivekananda for fifteen minutes. The Chairman knew the old rule of keeping the best until the last.”
Many leading newspapers of U. S. A., such as The Rutherford American, The Press of America, The Interior Chicago, The New York Critique wrote eloquently about Swami Vivekananda.
Many papers had quoted the Swami’s addresses in full. The Review of Reviews described his address as “noble and sublime.” Similar brilliant accounts of the Swami’s triumph appeared in other papers too numerous to quote here. Amongst personal appreciations, the Hon’ble Mr. Merwin-Marie Snell wrote some time after:
“No religious body made so profound an impression upon the Parliament and the American people at large, as did Hinduism . . . . And by far the most important and typical representative of Hinduism was Swami Vivekananda, who, in fact, was beyond question the most popular and influential man in the Parliament. He frequently spoke, both on the floor of the Parliament itself and at the meeting of the Scientific Section, over which I had the honour to preside, and, on all occasions he was received with greater enthusiasm than any other speaker, Christian or Pagan. The people thronged about him wherever he went and hung with eagerness on his every word . . . . The most rigid of orthodox Christians say of him, ‘He is indeed a prince among men! . . .’
And the Chairman of the General Committee of the Congress, the Rev. J. H. Barrows, said:
“Swami Vivekananda exercised a wonderful influence over his auditors.”
Dr. Annie Besant giving her impression of the Swami at the Parliament wrote long after:
“A striking figure, clad in yellow and orange, shining like the sun of India in the midst of the heavy atmosphere of Chicago, a lion head, piercing eyes, mobile lips, movements swift and abrupt — such was my first impression of Swami Vivekananda, as I met him in one of the rooms set apart for the use of the delegates to the Parliament of Religions. Monk, they called him, not unwarrantably, but warrior-monk was he, and the first impression was of the warrior rather than of the monk, for he was off the platform, and his figure was instinct with pride of country, pride of race — the representative of the oldest of living religions, surrounded by curious gazers of nearly the youngest, and by no means inclined to give step, as though the hoary faith he embodied was in aught inferior to the — noblest there. India was not to be shamed before the hurrying arrogant West by this her envoy and her son. He brought her message, he spoke in her name, and the herald remembered the dignity of the royal land whence he came. Purposeful, virile, strong, he stood out, a man among men, able to hold his own.
“On the platform another side came out. The dignity and the inborn sense of worth and power still were there, but all was subdued to the exquisite beauty of the spiritual message which he had brought, to the sublimity of that matchless evangel of the East which is the heart, the life of India, the wondrous teaching of the Self. Enraptured, the huge multitude hung upon his words; not a syllable must be lost, not a cadence missed! ‘That man a heathen!’ said one, as he came out of the great hall, ’and we send missionaries to his people! It would be more fitting that they should send missionaries to us.’”
Hundreds of enlightened and liberal-minded persons, Emersonians, Transcendentalists, Neo-Christians, Theosophists, Universalists, Congregationalists, either hearing him personally while in attendance at the Parliament, or reading the glowing accounts about him, felt that the Swami was, indeed, another Oriental Master come to them with a new Message. And so meteoric was the transformation of the Swami from obscurity to fame, that it can be truly said that he “awoke one morning to find himself famous.”
But to the Swami the recognition of his eloquence and the glorification of his name, far from touching or elating him, filled him with despondency. Indeed, on the very night of his triumph, he actually wept like a child at the thought that for him the joy of the free life of the unknown monk was at an end. In spite of his hatred of name and fame he was destined to be thwarted in his quest for obscurity. He was the monk with a Message and he had been forced out by Divine Providence. No longer could he be the itinerant monk; no more the quiet, solemn peace for him; it was to be strenuous, ceaseless labour with terrible, unintermittent demands upon his time and personality.
The Swami took himself and his Message seriously, and he was filled with courage to fulfil his Master’s will. An incident that occurred in the Parliament — and which is told in the second volume of the Historians’ History of the World by The Times, on pages 547 and 548, which were substituted in deference to the violent objection taken by the Indian subscribers to some serious calumnies published therein against Hinduism — illustrates the Swami’s boldnessi of spirit and self-confidence:
“A striking illustration of what in another case would be termed insularity of outlook was brought to view by a noted Hindu when addressing a vast audience at the World’s Congress of Religions in America, in the city of Chicago, in 1893. Pausing in the midst of his discourse, the speaker asked that every member of the audience who had read the sacred books of the Hindus, and who therefore had first-hand knowledge of their religion, would raise his hand. Only three or four hands were raised, though the audience represented, presumably, the leading theologians of many lands. Glancing benignly over the assembly, the Hindu raised himself, to his full height, and in a voice every accent of which must have smitten the audience as a rebuke, pronounced these simple words, ‘And yet you dare to judge us!”
The Swami was not only brilliant, but strong, in the hour of his unparalleled success. Ay, without catering to popularity, he assumed a severely critical attitude, and had the audience before him not understood his greatness, it would certainly have accused him of pedantry and “insularity of outlook”. But his love was too deep and sincere to be misunderstood. He found that India and her spiritual ideas had indeed been misrepresented to the public in the West and felt that he must constantly be on the defensive with regard to the merits of the Hindu religion. He always sought to give Hinduism a true status in the West.
His signal success at the Parliament of Religions, however, created jealousy amongst some of the Christian Missionaries and, shame to say, in one of his own countrymen, a leader of a progressive religious movement in India. The latter saw that his own great name and fame were being eclipsed by a new rival. When asked about the antecedents of the Hindu monk, he had whispered to the authorities of the Parliament that the Swami belonged to a vagabond sect in India with no status or influence, and that he was a fraud. Fortunately they were too broadminded to listen and accepted the Swami's irresistible personality as sufficient credentials. He received no recognition from the Theosophical leaders and representatives in America, who tried their best to cry him down. But these attempts proved futile, and he was the man of the hour wherever he went.
But in the midst of all this popularity the Swami’s heart continued to bleed for India. Personally he had no more wants. The mansions of some of the wealthiest of Chicago society were open to him, and he was received as an honoured guest there. On the very day of his triumph, he was invited by a man of great wealth and distinction to his home in one of the most fashionable parts of the city of Chicago. Here he was entertained right royally; a princely room fitted with luxury beyond anything he could conceive was assigned to him. But instead of feeling happy in this splendid environment, he was miserable. Name and fame and the approval of thousands had in no way affected him; though sumptuously cared for, he was the same Sannyasin as of old, thinking of India’s poor. As he retired the first night and lay upon his bed, the terrible contrast between poverty-stricken India and opulent America oppressed him. He could not sleep pondering over India’s plight. The bed of down seemed to be a bed of thorns. The pillow was wet with his tears. He went to the window and gazed out into the darkness until he was wellnigh faint with sorrow. At length, overcome with emotion he fell to the ground, crying out, “O Mother, what do I care for name and fame when my motherland remains sunk in utmost poverty! To what a sad pass have we poor Indians come when millions of us die for want of a handful of rice, and here they spend millions of rupees upon their personal comfort! Who will raise the masses in India! Who will give them bread? Show me, O Mother, how I can help them!
Over and over again one finds the same intense love for India shining out in his words and actions. The deep and spontaneous love which welled in his heart for the poor, the distressed and the despised, was the never-ceasing source of all his activities. Henceforth the student of the Swami’s life is led into a world of intense thought and work. He will discover that hand in hand with the message of Hinduism to the West, the Swami was constantly studying, observing, trying to turn every new experience to advantage in solving the problems of his country. Though the dusty roads and the parched tongue and the hunger of his Parivrajaka days were ascetic in the extreme, yet the experiences he was to undergo in foreign lands were to be even more severe. He was to strain himself to the utmost. He was to work until work was no longer possible and the body dropped off from sheer exhaustion.
The first intimation of the character of his future work was an invitation from a prominent lecture bureau3 to make a lecturing tour of America. He accepted it as the best way to broadcast the ideas with which his mind teemed, and to disillusionise the Western mind of its erroneous notions concerning India and its culture. It was also a way to become independent and get funds for the various philanthropic and religious works in India which he had in mind. Now we see the Swami travelling hither and thither in America, visiting numerous cities, telling of the glories of India and the greatness of Indian culture. He visited all the larger cities of the Eastern and Mid-Western States lecturing in Chicago, Iowa City, Des Moines, Memphis. Indianapolis, Minneapolis. Detroit, Hartford, Buffalo, Boston, Cambridge, Baltimore, Washington, Brooklyn, New York and other places. Unfortunately there are but few details of this noteworthy tour. Here and there one catches glimpses of his illuminating utterances and the glowing descriptions of his personality as these were recorded in the daily newspapers. Just when the Swami commenced his lecturing tour is unknown. It must have been in the very late autumn or the early winter months when, to use his own expression, he “began to whirl to and fro.” He had many experiences, some extraordinarily spiritual, showing that a great power was working in and through him. Studying America as he did, he came to know it in many ways. During this period he made his headquarters with the family of Mr. George W. Hale of Chicago, where he always received the warmest welcome and was looked upon with great, reverence and regard. He often spoke of their loving kindness and attachment to him.
But the lecturing tour was not altogether a pleasant experience. His lack of suitable apparel caused him to suffer intensely from cold. Then, too, the constant demands of the lecture platform told on him. He always spoke extemporaneously. Everywhere he went he was enthusiastically received, people flocking about him and clergymen beseeching him to come and lecture in their churches. Yet at the same time he had to run the gauntlet of innumerable irritating questions, betraying either a monumental ignorance of Hindu culture, or erroneous ideas of life in India. Some there were who flatly contradicted him on subjects of which they were in entire ignorance; then he fell upon them like a thunderbolt. The Iowa State Register speaking of him said:
“But woe to the man who undertook to combat the monk on his own ground and that was where they all tried it who tried it.at all. His replies came like flashes of lightning and the venturesome questioner was sure to be impaled on the Indian’s shining intellectual lance. The workings ot his mind, so subtle and so brilliant, so well stored and so well trained, sometimes dazzled his hearers, but it was always a most interesting study. Vivekananda and his cause found a place in the hearts of all true Christians.”
The Swami had no patience with small-mindedness or fanaticism. He had great reverence for Christ and His teachings; but he pointed out the faults and defects of Christian civilisation in unmistakable terms, and occasionally was sternly critical. As an instance may be cited the following from one of his lectures at Detroit in the February of 18944:
“One thing I would tell you. and I do not mean any unkind criticism. Yon train and educate and clothe and pay men to do what? — to come over to my country and curse and abuse all my forefathers, my religion and my everything. They walk near a temple and say, ‘You idolaters, you will go to hell!’ . . . But the Hindu is mild; he smiles and passes on saying, ‘Let the fools talk.’ That is the attitude. And when you who train men to abuse and criticise, if I just touch you with the least bit of criticism, with the kindest of purpose, you shrink and cry, ‘Do not touch us; we are Americans, wc criticise, curse and abuse all the heathens of the world, but do not touch us, we are sensitive plants.’ You may do whatever you please, but we are content to live as we do; and in one thing we are better off — we never teach our children to swallow such horrible stuff: ‘Where every prospect pleases and man is vile.’ And when ever your ministers criticise us let them remember this: if all India stands up and takes all the mud that is at the bottom of the Indian Ocean and throws it up against the Western countries, it will not be doing an infinitesimal part of that which you are doing to us. And what for? Did we ever send one missionary to convert anybody in the West? We say to you, ‘You are welcome to your religion, but allow us to have ours.’ You rail yours an aggressive religion. You are aggressive, but how many have you converted? Every sixth man in the world is a Chinese subject — all Buddhists; . . . and it may not be palatable, but this Christian morality, the Catholic Church, and many other things are derived from them. Well, and how was this done? Without the shedding of one drop of blood! With all your brag and boasting where has your Christianity succeeded without the sword? Show me one place in the whole world. One, I say, throughout the history of the Christian religion — one; I do not want two. I know how your forefathers were converted. They had to be converted or killed, that was all. . . . ‘We are the only one.’ And why? Because we can kill others.’ The Arabs said that; they bragged. And where is the Arab now? He is the Bedouin. The Romans used to say that, and where are they now? And we have been sitting there on our blocks of stone. ‘Blessed are the peace makers; for they shall be called the children of God!’ Such things tumble down; they are built upon sand; they cannot remain long. Everything that has selfishness for its basis, competition for its right hand and enjoyment as its goal, must die sooner or later. If you want to live, go hack to Christ. You are not Christians. No, as a nation, you are not. Go back to Christ. Go back to Him who had nowhere to lay His head. . . . Yours is a religion preached in the name of luxury. What an irony of late! Reverse this if you want, to live; reverse this. It is all hypocrisy that I have heard in this country. If this nation is going to live, let it go back to Him. You cannot serve God and Mammon at the same time. All this prosperity, all this from Christ? Christ would have denied all such heresies. . . . If you can join these two, this wonderful prosperity with that ideal of Christ, it is well; but if you cannot, better go back to Him and give up these vain pursuits. Better be ready to live in rags with Christ than to live in palaces without Him.”
It is no wonder that utterances like these aroused bitter opposition from the Christian propagandists. They tried to injure his reputation, by abusing and vilifying hirn. They even went to the length, so the Swami said, of tempting him with young women, promising them recompense if they succeeded. They desisted when they found him as simple and pure as a child. It seems almost incredible that they should have gone so far in the name of religion. Amidst all these distractions the Swami kept his equanimity of mind, trusting to the Lord and consoling himself with the thought that the highest-minded Christians and clergymen were his avowed admirers, and in many instances even his followers.
Thus one finds the Swami, now in brilliant flashes of wit or repartee, now in terms of scathing criticism, uttering his views concerning the worth of Western culture. Perhaps, on one occasion he would retort with sarcastic humour as he did to his questioner in one of his lectures in Minneapolis, when asked if Hindu mothers threw their children to the crocodiles in the rivers, by saying, “Yes, Madam! They threw me in, but like your fabled Jonah I got out again.” Or on another occasion he would condemn with all seriousness and with remarkable penetration the aggressive and destructive characteristics in Western civilisation, by saying, “I am rather a plain-spoken man, but I mean well. I want to tell you the truth. I am not here to flatter you; it is not my business. If I wanted to do that I would have opened a fashionable church in Fifth Avenue in New York. You are my children. I want to show you the way out of self to God by pointing out to you your errors, your defects and your vanities. Therefore you do not hear me praising your current Christianity or your ideals of civilisation, or the peculiar forms of character and life that are developed by Western ethical standards.” Once in Detroit the Swami mercilessly asked, “Where is your Christianity? Where is there a place for Jesus the Christ in this selfish struggle, in this constant tendency to destroy? True, if He were here today, He would not find a stone whereon to lay His head.” When a distinguished clergyman wondered how the Swami could understand the Christ Ideal so well, he replied, “Why, Jesus was an Oriental! It is therefore natural that we Orientals should understand Him truly and readily.”
The Swami had many friends, both clergymen and distinguished laymen, who espoused his cause and answered his critics and urged him to do likewise. But he replied, “Why should I attack in return? It is not the monk's place to defend himself. Besides, Truth will have its way, believe me, Truth shall stand.” Sometimes his only reply, when he was told of some baseless assertions newly made against him, would be a prayer.
As early as January, 1894, the Swami found that he was being maliciously attacked by zealous Missionaries in India, who knew that his addresses were harmful to their proselytising activities. In a letter from India, mention was made of an American newspaper in which he was very sharply criticised. The Swami wrote in reply to a disciple:5
“The criticism of the paper you mention is not to he taken as the attitude of the American people. The paper is almost unknown here and is what they call a ‘blue-nose Presbyterian paper’ very bigoted. Still all the 'blue-noses’ are not ungenttlemanly. The American people, and many of the clergy are very hospitable to me. That paper wanted to gain a little notoriety by attacking a man who was being lionised by society. That trick is well known here and they do not think anything of it. Of course, our Indian Missionaries may try to make capital out of it. If they do, tell them, ‘Mark. Jew, a judgment has come upon you!’ Their old building is tottering to its foundation and must come down in spite of their hysterical shrieks. I pity them — if their means of living fine lives in India is cut down by the influx of Oriental religions here. But nor one of their leading clergy is ever against me.”
ll was true the leading clergy and all progressive thinkers and earnest-minded seekers after truth were his friends. But the Swami was not concerned about that. He knew that if it was the Will of the Most High that his message should be broadcast, nothing on earth could stand against him. His was the spirit of the Rishis of old. His one earnest hope was to gain some disciples, whose spiritual earnestness and sincerity would form the nucleus from which would be disseminated his gospel. Other than that and the regeneration of his motherland, he had no desire. He remained always the meditative monk, the spiritual genius, the man of the Parivrajaka background, the child of the Mother of the Universe, awaiting the commands and the leading from On High.
His lectures at this period were intensely religious and philosophical. He found, however, that the lecture bureau was exploiting and defrauding him. For example, at one lecture, the returns were $2,500, of which the Swami received only $200. At first, in order to hold him, the manager had given him as much as $900 for a single lecture; but after a time, for reasons best known to himself, he lowered the rate until it became apparent, even to as unworldly-minded a person as the Swami, that he was not being treated fairly. After some weeks, he severed his relations with the lecture bureau, although it meant a considerable pecuniary loss. But glory and financial success was not for himself. His object was to save up a sufficient amount of money wherewith to start philanthropic centres in different provinces of India. But even with this incentive he became disgusted with what he termed “the nonsense of public life and newspaper blazoning.”
He felt happy that the Americans had a great desire for the Highest Truth. But as in all other lands he found many quasi-metaphysicians and spiritual teachers who traded and grew fat on the religious credulity and earnestness of the people in their search for Truth. These made many unsuccessful efforts to have him join their ranks; but the result was the reverse of their desires, for it made him only the more determined to do work, real spiritual work, for which he would not accept any recompense. He would give freely as the Rishis of ancient India had given.
Meanwhile his mind was busy making contrasts between the Western and the Asiatic cultures, and studying the advantages of many of the industrial and economic systems of the West, so that he could apply them later on in definite and practical ways to the wants of his own people. He visited various museums, universities, institutions and art galleries trying to comprehend the spirit of Western life. Gazing at some work of art, or studying some signal engineering or architectural feat, his thought would leap in admiration of the greatness of the human mind. He became a keen student of the public and social life of America. Often he would gaze in wonder at the mad rush of energy on all sides and view with astonishment the massive, towering palaces of industry, in the large cities. And the contrast between the pomp and power of the Western world, its complicated and highly polished social and industrial life, and the poverty and crowded misery of the Indian cities with here and there some naked Sadhu covered with ashes, would be borne in on him. The greatness of his spirit enabled him to hold the balance even between the two worlds — the East and the West. The result of these continued and thoughtful observations were embodied in his learned treatise, “The East and the West.”
And yet, intense as were his activities, he did not lose touch with his disciples in the East. He was in frequent correspondence with disciples in Madras, Rajputana, and other places, teaching, consoling and inspiring them with his own enthusiasm. He gave them the benefit of his insight into the modes and customs and the greatness of Western life and urged upon them the necessity of organisation and united effort and trust in God. But above all his concern with them was spiritual and the Guru in him came out in all his utterances. He had met numerous women of high intellectual attainments in America, and it was his delight to cross swords with them intellectually. This was a new experience, for in India the zenana system excluded women from social and intellectual contacts. One sees the Swami in his letters to India drawing sharp contrasts between the emancipation of Western women and the seclusion of women amongst his own people. He writes, “Can you better the condition of your women? Then there will be hope for your well-being. Otherwise you will remain as backward as you are now.” And he concludes by saying, “As regards spirituality, the Americans are far inferior to us, but their society is far superior to ours. We will teach them our spirituality, and assimilate what is best in their society.”
It was touching to many who met him in the West to see how he endeavoured to fit himself in with the Western standards of good manners. East and West, so different in all other things, are different also in their forms of etiquette. He would oftentimes pause to observe, or would turn to his host or hostess, questioning with all the simplicity of a child as to the right social form. “How is it?” he would ask, “Does the gentleman or the lady precede in coming up or going down the stairs?” As a guest he was given complete personal liberty. They understood that at any moment the mood of insight might come upon him and he would become oblivious of what was happening about him. As with his Master, even the simplest phenomenon of life would remind him of revelations and spiritual truths. The states of meditation and recollection were always with him. Writes Sister Nivedita:
“The Swami never seemed, it must be remembered, to be doing Tapasya, but his whole life was a concentration so intense that for any one else it would have been a most terrible Tapasya. When he first went to America, it was extremely difficult for him to control the momentum that carried him into meditation. ‘When he sits down to meditate,’ had said one whose guest he was in India, ‘in two minutes he feels nothing, though his body be black with mosquitoes.’ With this habit thus deeply ingrained, he landed in America, that country of railroads and tramways, and complicated engagement lists; and at first it was no uncommon thing for him to be carried two or three times round a tram-circuit, only disturbed periodically by the conductor asking for the fare. He was very much ashamed of such occurrences, however, and worked hard to overcome them.”
Meanwhile news was pouring into India of the unparalleled success of the Swami in America. The Indian journals and magazines were filled with the American reports of his great address at the Parliament; these quotations, extracts and comments were literally devoured by the Hindus, from Madras to Almora, from Calcutta to Bombay.
The monks of the Ramakrishna Order at Baranagore also read the accounts of the Swami’s success, but though they could not recognise their Naren in the Swami Vivekananda yet something told them in their heart of hearts that it must be he. They had not heard of him for several years. Six months after the Parliament of Religions a letter from the Swami himself settled the matter once for all. Their happiness was inexpressible. They were amazed in spite of Shri Ramakrishna’s prophecy, “Naren shall shake the world to its foundations!”
The general public in India was transported with joy at the glowing accounts of the welcome accorded to the Swami and the message of Hinduism he preached. This was a new order of experience for Hindusthan — to receive recognition of her greatness, to be vindicated as “the Spiritual Teacher of the World”.
The Swami’s name became a household word in every province of India. Madras and Bengal were naturally most enthusiastic and cordial in their appreciation. Large and influential meetings were held at many places to send addresses to the Swami congratulating him on his success and applauding his work in the cause of Hinduism in America. Bhaskar Setupati, the Raja of Ramnad, sent a message of congratulation. Maharaja Ajit Singh of Khetri presided over a durbar held for this special purpose, and conveyed to the Swami in his own name and that of his subjects the heartfelt thanks of the State for his worthy representation of Hinduism at the Chicago Parliament. And in Madras, Raja Sir Ramaswamy Mudaliar, Sir Subrahmanya Aiyer, C. I. E., and many other distinguished citizens and scholars took part in a great meeting where stirring speeches were made, the reports of which were duly sent to the Swami. Meetings were also held at Kumbakonam and other cities in the South, and addresses forwarded to him. But in Calcutta, the birthplace of the Swami, the enthusiasm reached a pitch of frenzy. And the Swami, in distant America, took India’s sanction of his work and message not so much as a personal appreciation of himself, but as an indication that the centre of the national ideal of ancient Aryavarta was still sound — that its spiritual foundation stood unshaken, strong as ever. He accepted the generous appreciation of his work in this spirit and sent replies, the most notable and stirring of which were those to the Hindus of Madras and the Maharaja of Khetri.
The citizens of Calcutta organised a great representative meeting in the Town Hall on September 5, 1894 to thank the Swami and the American people. The meeting was organised by the most representative members of the Hindu community, and attended by people of all shades of opinion. Some of the most well-known Pandits as well as the landed aristocracy, the High Court Judges, noted public men, pleaders, politicians, professors and prominent men in many other walks of life took part in the meeting. It was presided over by Raja Peary Mohun Mookerjee, C.S.I. The following resolutions were moved and adopted with eloquent speeches eulogising the Swarm's work and contribution towards the dissemination of the Hindu culture among the Western nations:
“1. That this meeting desires to record its grateful appreciation of the great services rendered to the cause of Hinduism by Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions at Chicago, and of his subsequent work in America.
“2. That this meeting tenders its best thanks to Dr. J. H. Barrows, the Chairman, and Mr. Merwin-Marie Snell, the President of the Scientific Section of the Parliament of Religions at Chicago, and to the American people generally, for the cordial and sympathetic reception they have accorded to Swami Vivekananda.
“3. That this meeting requests the Chairman to forward to Sreemat Vivekananda Swami, Dr. Barrows and Mr. Snell copies of the foregoing Resolutions together with the following letter addressed to Swami Vivekananda.
TO SREEMAT VIVEKANANDA SWAMI
“As Chairman of a large, representative and influential meeting of the Hindu inhabitants of Calcutta and the suburbs, held in the Town Hall of Calcutta, on the 5th of September, 1894, I have the pleasure to convey to you the thanks of the local Hindu community for your able representation of their religion at the Parliament of Religions that met at Chicago in September, 1893.
“The trouble and sacrifice you have incurred by your visit to America as a representative of the Hindu Religion are profoundly appreciated by all whom you have done the honour to represent. But their special acknowledgments are due to you for the services you have rendered to the cause they hold so dear, their sacred Arya Dharma, by your speeches and your ready responses to the questions of inquiries. No exposition of the general principles of the Hindu Religion could, within the limits of a lecture, he more accurate and lucid than what you gave in your address to the Parliament of Religions on Tuesday, the 19th September, 1893. And your subsequent utterances on the same subject on other occasions have been equally clear and precise. It has been the misfortune of Hindus to have their religion misunderstood and misrepresented through ages, and therefore they cannot but feel specially grateful to one of them who had the courage and the ability to speak the truth about it and dispel illusions, among a strange people, in a strange land, professing a different religion. Their thanks are due no less to the audiences and the organisers of the meetings, who have received work, and heard you in a patient and charitable spirit. Hinduism has, for the first lime in its history, found a Missionary, and by a rare good fortune it has found one so able and accomplished as yourself. Your fellow-country men, fellow-citizens and fellow-Hindus feel that they would be wanting in an obvious duty if they did not convey to you their hearty sympathy and earnest gratitude for all your labours, in spreading a true knowledge of their ancient faith. May God grant you strength and energy to carry on the good work you have begun!
Peary Mohun Mookerjce.
The lectures that were delivered on the occasion by such prominent men as Mr. N. N. Ghosh, Sir Surendranath Banerjee, and others created a great wave of spiritual enthusiasm. It was as if the Spirit of the Sanatana Dharma were there as a great overshadowing influence of peace and insight and benediction, thrilling and electrifying the utterances of the speakers. The name, Vivekananda, rang with acclaim throughout the length and breadth of Hindusthan; everywhere he was recognised as a Great Acharya, the Man who had come to fill a need. He roused the spirit of Hinduism from the lethargy and somnolence into which it had fallen; and in these meetings one already became aware of that approaching dawn when India, as of old would become gloriously self-conscious and supremely powerful, not by warfare and streams of blood but by the infinitely more powerful force of the incomparable Vedas and the Vedanta.