How Vivekananda enthralled the audience in Chicago?

Before I inform you about the speech of Swami Vivekananda in Chicago at the World Parliament of Religions, first we need to understand what was the parliament of religion held for.

World Parliament of Religions, was an initiative of the Swedenborgian layman (and judge) Charles Carroll Bonney. The Parliament of Religions was by far the largest of the congresses held in conjunction with the Exposition. John Henry Barrows, a clergyman, was appointed as the first chairman of the General Committee of the 1893 Parliament by Charles Bonney.

The Parliament of Religions opened on 11 September 1893 at the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building which is now The Art Institute of Chicago, and ran from 11 to 27 September, making it the first organized interfaith gathering. Today it is recognized as the occasion of the birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide, with representatives of a wide variety of religions and new religious movements.

There were always myths about the Hindu religion, also called the religion of the VEDANTA, during those times. India was considered a backward and a poor country and the Hindu religion was considered as inferior compared to other religions. But Vivekananda knew that no religion in the world was more powerful, scientific and authentic than the religion of the Vedas. He wanted to prove this with evidence. His intention was not to show that Hindu religion was superior to other religions but he wanted to show the power of Hindu religion and how it had the capacity to solve the problems of the society. However, he did not fear from pointing errors in other religions whenever he found faults in them.

Many great men like Vivekananda have burned their entire life to propagate the message of the Hindu religion to people all over the world and bring glory to it. We will understand more about Hinduism in the subsequent episodes.

When Vivekananda came to know about the WORLD PARLIAMENT OF RELIGIONS, he realized that it was THE perfect opportunity to propagate the ideas of Hindu religion all over the world because dignified people from different countries were going to present the ideas of their religion. But Vivekananda did not have necessary funds to travel to America.

He was helped by his Madras disciples, the kings of Mysore, Ramnad, Khetri, diwans and other followers because they knew that with the kind of knowledge and power Swami had, he was befitting to travel across the border. Narendra left Bombay for Chicago on 31 May 1893 with the name “Vivekananda” which was suggested by Ajit Singh of Khetri.

After reaching Chicago Vivekananda learned no one could attend the Parliament as a delegate without credentials or bona fide. He did not have such at that moment and felt utterly disappointed. He also learned that the Parliament would not open till the first week of September. But Vivekananda did not give up his hope. To cut his expenditure, he decided to go to Boston, which was less costly than Chicago.

At Boston, Vivekananda met Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University. Professor Wright invited Vivekananda to give a lecture at the University. After being acquainted with Vivekananda’s knowledge, wisdom, and excellence, Professor Wright insisted him to represent Hinduism at the Parliament of World’s Religions. Vivekananda himself later wrote– “He urged upon me the necessity of going to the Parliament of Religions, which he thought would give an introduction to the nation“.When Wright learned that Vivekananda was not officially accredited and did not have any credentials to join the Parliament, he told Vivekananda– “To ask for your credentials is like asking the sun to state its right to shine in the heavens.”

The speech of the Swami was very simple and spoken in easy language which all of us will be able to understand. You can read the whole speech at the end of this article. It will not require any kind of explanation as such but I will tell you about a few facts where some information might be required.

Response to Welcome
Swami Vivekananda was very nervous when he saw the august assembly full of the best speakers representing their religions come from different countries. They had ready-made speeches with them. Swami Vivekananda had never spoken in front of such a huge audience. He tried to delay his turn as much as possible but finally, he had to speak in the afternoon. Though initially nervous, he bowed to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, and he felt he got new energy in his body; he felt someone or something else had occupied his body– “The Soul of India, the echo of the Rishis, the voice of Ramakrishna, the mouthpiece of the resurgent Time spirit”. Then began his speech with the salutation, “Sisters and brothers of America!”. To these words, he got a standing ovation from a crowd of seven thousand, which lasted for two minutes. When silence was restored he began his address. He greeted the youngest of the nations on behalf of “the most ancient order of monks in the world, the Vedic order of sannyasins, a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance.!”

What followed after the speech and after the end of the convention at Chicago?
Swami Vivekananda was the hero at the Parliament of Religion. His clarity of thought, his deep understanding of spirituality, his love for humanity were the critical reasons why people could instantly identify with his thought process. Vivekananda did not just propagate the ideas of Hinduism, but he propagated to the people about the method to elevate their life, methods to solve the problems of their life. Most of the ideas of Vivekananda were unfamiliar to people in other countries because they only knew about the materialistic method of living.

This is the kind of praise that Vivekananda got after his speech at the Parliament of Religions.
The New York Herald
“Vivekananda 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.’’

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, of the race………..

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.”

The Hon’ble Mr. Merwin-Marie Snell wrote:
“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 honor to preside, and, on all occasions lie 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 ! ”


Sisters and Brothers of America,

It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which 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 the 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 honour of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance 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 Southern 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 has 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 every day 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 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 civilisation 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 honour of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

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