Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

Swami Vivekananda: Chicago address at the World Parliament of Religions, 11th Sep, 1893.

P.J.Mazumdar


Swami Vivekanda arrived in the US on July 30, 1893. During his years as a wandering monk, he had heard of the Parliament of Religions that was to be held in the US, and had resolved to spread his message of Hinduism in the West and at the same time, enlist its help in his real work, which was to raise the status of the poor in India through education and enlightenment. Many people strove to gather the resources needed for this journey, and the contributions of the disciples who had congregated around him in Madras, various personalities including kings, and most importantly, support from the Raja of Khetri, at last enabled him to reach the shores of the US.

But both the Swami and his supporters were rather naive, and he arrived in the US without knowing even the exact time when the parliament would start and also without any letter of recognition which would enable him to represent Hinduism in the parliament. Upon arrival, he realized that there was another month before the parliament would start, and it would be nearly impossible for him to get registered there. Although the situation seemed impossible, he was still able to carry the day through the sheer force of his personality. On the train to Boston which he took almost randomly, he met an important lady, Mrs. Sanborn, who came under the spell of his personality and gave him shelter in Boston and also introduced him to Dr. Wright, a professor of Greek classics at Harvard University. This professor was deeply impressed with him and invited him to give several public talks to his select friends, and also made the necessary arrangements at the Parliament for him to appear on the podium. Returning back, he nearly had another disaster, losing his way in Chicago, but here again he was helped by Mrs. G. Hale, who saw him sitting tired out and lost on the street, and guided him.

It is a strange testimony to Vivekananda’s personality that all these people who met him, the Sanborn family, Prof. Wright, Mrs. Hale and her family, and others who met him during this one month, all came under his spell and remained lifelong admirers. They were all learned people and used to meeting people of influence and power, but here we find that upon meeting this complete stranger, this man in his strange robes and naive habits, they immediately came to recognize his wisdom and greatness.

So at last we find on the opening day of the Parliament, Swami Vivekananda sitting on the podium along with scholarly and erudite representatives from all over the world. The Parliament was held from September 11 to 27, 1893, in connection with the World’s Columbian Exposition in the city of Chicago. The sessions were held in the large Hall of Columbus, with a capacity of 7000, and numerous papers were read by the various delegates. The opening session on September 11, 1893, started at 10 am. The hall was filled to capacity on the opening day. It was presided over by Cardinal Gibbons, who sat in the center. Around him sat all the delegates including Vivekananda. He was a little intimidated, as he himself confessed, and kept passing up his chance to give his inaugural address. At last however, he could refuse no more and rose up to give his address.

Here is how he described this own feelings in a letter on November 2 to his disciple in Madras, Alasinga Perumal:

“On the morning of the opening of the Parliament, we all assembled in a building called the Art Palace, where one huge, and other smaller temporary halls were erected for the sittings of the Parliament, 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 marshaled 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 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 delegated 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.”

It may have been a short speech, but it was a momentous one, and its importance reverberates even today. That short speech was much applauded, and when Vivekananda sat down, he was no more the stranger who had wandered about bumping into problems everywhere for the past month but a hero who was lionized in both the US and the UK thereafter.

As soon as he uttered his first words, ‘Sisters and brothers of America’, the whole crowd rose to its feet and cheered him wildly. The previous speakers had all spoken in formalized scholarly language, and had failed to gauge the mood of the crowd. But when Vivekananda spoke his simple words, it struck a chord in its heart, and the people all responded to the graciousness and brotherhood of his message. His speech when it was concluded was greatly applauded, and thereafter Vivekananda became the well recognized hero of the Parliament.

Rev. John Henry Barrows, the President of the Parliament, wrote in his official history, “The World’s Parliament of Religions”, “When Mr. Vivekananda addressed the audience as ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’, there arose a peal of applause that lasted for several minutes.”

He also wrote in his records, “This speaker is a high–caste Hindu and representative of orthodox Hinduism. He was one of the principal personalities in the Parliament as well as one of the most popular of guests in the Chicago drawing rooms.”

Another eyewitness, Mrs. S.K. Blodgett, later recalled: “When that young man got up and said, ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’, seven thousand people rose to their feet as a tribute to something they knew not what. When it was over I saw scores of women walking over the benches to get near him...”

Thus with a few simple words, words that resonated with the deep message that Vivekananda had carried with him from India, the Swami was able to capture the heart of America.

The full text of the speech is given below:

“Sisters and brothers of America,

It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome that you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.

My thanks also to some of speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far off nations may well claim the honor of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both toleration and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.

I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom, the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to South India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which ahs sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation.

I will quote to you, brethren, a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is everyday repeated by millions of human beings: ‘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 appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.

The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: ‘Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end all lead to me.

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 civilizations 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 is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”



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