How Swami Vivekananda arrived at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and appeared at the Parliament of Religions held there, is a saga in itself. His passage across the Pacific from Japan was paid for by friends in India, who, having no idea of the cost of living in the New World, provided him with only enough to get him here, and nothing on which to live. He came via Vancouver, B.C. and made his way to Chicago only to find that he was too early. Several weeks would elapse before the Parliament opened. In the meantime he managed with the help of generous strangers to spend this time in New England, in the homes and summer homes of some very distinguished people.
At any rate, the outlook was bleak in every way: he not only had no money, he had no official credentials and the aforesaid friends were responsible for getting him onto the program.
Here are the names of some of the important people who were to take part: Cardinal Gibbons, the highest Catholic official in New York, Archbishop Zante (Greek Orthodox), D.T. Suzuki (later the famous Zen authority), Mrs. Potter Palmer, (the equivalent of a feminist for those days), and ambassadors and free-lancers of all kinds.
Vivekananda was stirred by their eloquence, as was the audience of over four thousand knowledgeable people. How were people affected by him? We are going to look at the scene from four different perspectives: his biographers’; reporters and contemporaries’; as he saw it; and ours, one century later.
First to set the familiar scene, his first sentence, “Sisters and Brothers of America” was greeted by a two-minute standing ovation. He spoke ten times in all, at various sessions. When he had finished, the concept of idolatry had been smashed, Protestants (except for Unitarians, Swedenborgians and some Anglicans) writhed and ranted. The Catholics set up “counselling” in one of the rooms. The question that ran through everything was not only whether Christianity was superior to other religions, but whether it was going to replace them through missionary activity, and if so, how. He made the academics present uncomfortable too, for, with the highest metaphysics, he spoke like a fervidly emotional preacher.
As seen by His Biographers
Most have dealt with all this in a somewhat Byronic vein. A wanderer, guided through many difficulties by the Lord. His prophetic role, St.Paul-like, has repeatedly been pointed out. The West, they have said, suffering under the delusion of sheer materiality and the headiness of mechanical invention, needed India and its message of spirituality; and of course India, sinking under its own prostaration before the foreign powers, badly needed a champion.
Biographers have drawn attention to the novelty of his calling on the power of monks, of fomenting East-West exchange; have noted his orthodoxy in essentials, but openness to experiment in methods. Vivekananda has been called a reformer, a nation-builder, a world-teacher and a world architect. At the peak of his career, he was an unusual patriot — seeking to regenerate his people not with arms or revolution but through renunciation and service. And of course his triumph served not only India but Hinduism as well. A letter from one of his Indian disciples tells of Swamiji being on the shore of Lake Michigan one moonlit night, his mind deeply absorbed and about to merge in samadhi, when he suddenly had the vision of Sri Ramakrishna and remembering his work and mission, turned his mind back to it. Biographers have made much of Vivekananda being truly the child of his Master.
Some of the biographers, (Western as well as Indian), caught up in the mood of adulation and national pride, have carried the affect of Swami Vivekananda’s presentation to the Parliament to exaggerated and inaccurate heights.
As seen by Reporters and Contemporaries
“A handsome young man, dressed spectacularly…” “Looking like Othello”, “voice like a ‘cello” such were the words used in the newspaper reports. (His dress, actually, was not his choice; he was not yet acclimated to the cool weather). Some of the press reported how attracted women were, rushing to touch the hem of his robe. Even an academic and later-to-be-famous philosopher, William Earnest Hocking, was duly struck by the impression Vivekananda made. In our word today, he had charisma; but he was far from being the only one at the gathering who had it. He accepted all this adulation, they said, like a child, without a trace of conceit. Yet he had the air, too, of being a master of the situation.
Some noted his touch of reserve in speaking with ladies. “He spoke,” said the papers, “in words which all could understand.” But in the Science Section others were struck by his detailed knowledge of the technical subjects. Although he used little sarcastic remarks like a rapier, Swami Vivekananda’s courtesy was unfailing it was said. At times he was pushed into defense of India and of Hindu society, but according to Sir Hiram Maxim, a brilliant engineer and inventor who was there, “this monk…had an immense following…here was a specimen of the unsaved who knew more of philosophy and religion than all the parsons and missionaries in the whole country…There was more in religion than they had ever dreamed.”
In papers and journals poems were written about him, jokes made, editorials in abundance written, venturing the meaning of all this; later cartoons were drawn (about his friendship with theatrical greats and his trip to Egypt). Swamiji was called unmatched as a parlor-conversationalist by those who hosted him in their homes. We have the account of a child, Cornelia Conger, who declared him a fabulous friend and story-teller.
The Theosophist paper, on the other hand, was labeling Vivekananda an upstart and an ingrate (not to have acknowledged credits they felt were theirs).
Each speaker at the Parliament, said the reporters, spoke of his own God — the God of his sect; Vivekananda alone spoke of the God of all.
As seen by Himself
The reasons for Swami Vivekananda’s taking part in all of this are not all evident. In Hyderabad at his very first public lecture he said that he felt it was imperative for him to go out as a missionary to the farthest West. This motivation seems to have lowered itself into his subconscious in the days to come, for as he travelled westward and had to absorb the impact of these cultures on his mind, other motives seemed to take hold. Asked by a reporter about the results of the affair, he said:
“The Parliament of Religions, as it seems to me, was intended as a heathen show before the world; but it turned out that the heathens had the upper hand….So the Parliament was a failure from the Christian standpoint, seeing that the Roman Catholics who were among the organizers, are, when there is talk of another Parliament in Paris, opposing it. But it was a tremendous success for India and Indian thought.”
Yet he wrote in 1894 to his friend the Raja of Khetri:
“What a wonderful achievement was that World’s Fair at Chicago! And that wonderful Parliament of Religions where voices from every corner of the earth expressed their religious ideas!”
In his replies to the crowds who met him on Indian soil at his return, Swami put it another way:
“I did not go to America for the Parliament…but this demon of a feeling was in me and within my soul. I travelled twelve years all over India, finding no way to work for my countrymen, and that is why I went to America. Who cared about this Parliament of Religions? Here was my own flesh and blood sinking every day and who cared for them? This was my first step.” ” The Parliament was simply an opportunity; for it was my ideas that took me all over the world.”
Not many know that he told his brother disciple Swami Turiyananda before leaving from Bombay, “For this (pointing to himself) alone, all this meeting is being arranged.” Of course he gave the credit for all successes to his Master, Sri Ramakrishna, and took the blame for any failures upon himself. It was well said by the French savant, Romain Rolland, that after the Parliament it dawned on Swami Vivekananda that his free, solitary life had come to an end.
Other dimensions of Swamiji’s involvement in the gathering and in his trips to the West, such as the raising of funds for the founding of his Math and Mission and instigating Western persons of resource to share their expertise with India, cannot be explored in this brief essay.
As seen by us, a century later
One who has written a book about him is Prof. George M. Williams: The Quest for Meaning of Swami Vivekananda, and in it he says: “He launched the twentieth century’s most potent religious force in India.” There have been many who have compared him with St. Paul; with whatever validity that may have, the Swami, after all, had years of contact with his Master which Paul never did; moreover, in spite of that, Swamiji did not preach a person. Wasn’t he more a ferryman? some have asked. “America discovered Vivekananda and made a gift of him to India and to the world, ” observes Swami Nikhilananda, his principal biographer. It is an American trait, he says, to draw out the latent greatness in people. One of the most remarkable features of Vivekananda’s relations with contemporaries is the way in which he “got away with” his numerous rebukes.
He himself compared his Parliament role with that of Dharmapala, the Buddhist representative, who, much less prepared in terms of education and experience, nevertheless captivated the Western audience with his charm and simplicity. Swami Vivekananda, on the other hand became a central figure in a world movement, much as the Dalai Lama is today.
However we, who are prejudicially partisan to the Swami and his work , may estimate his place in religion and in history, there is little doubt that the Green Revolution, the Peace Corps, the World Literacy movement, mobile clinics and libraries and many other phenomena owe some of their inspiration to Vivekananda. An Anglican cleric prominent at the Parliament said of it that it was the greatest event in the religious history of mankind. Paul Carus, editor of a high-class journal of the time, agreed. If so, Swamiji’s role in it was most appropriate.