Swami Vivekananda on the World Stage of the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Written by Dr. Veena Howard
July 22, 2018

The World’s Parliament of Religions has become an accomplished fact…. My thanks to those noble souls whose large hearts and love of truth first dreamed this wonderful dream and then realised it.

-Swami Vivekananda, Excerpt from the Final Session of the World Parliament of Religions, Chicago, 1893

Swami Vivekananda on the World Stage of the Parliament of the World’s Religions

In 1893, standing on the platform of the newly formed Parliament of the World’s Religions, the young Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) warned against the forces of sectarianism and bigotry. With the inception of the World’s Parliament also began a new era of international interreligious dialogue and interactions among various religions—the period, which with technological advances, would also shrink the boundaries among countries ushering in the age of global connectivity. The Parliament of the World’s Religions (the Parliament), held in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition, is internationally recognized as the occasion of inception of official interreligious dialogue. Intriguingly, not only the representatives of the major world religions (e.g. Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, etc.) were participants, but also the leaders of new religious movements (e.g. Baha’i faith, Spiritualism, and Christian Science), and 19 leading women from across spiritual and civic institutions, making it also the world’s most inclusive interreligious platform.

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) represented Hinduism as a delegate at 30 years of age. With his fiery spirit, he introduced Hinduism at the opening session of the Parliament on September 11, 1893—125 years ago. His words echoed within the halls the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building and reverberated across the United States and beyond. His insights are even more relevant today than the time in which they were spoken.  In the presence of great leaders from Judaism, Christianity, Jainism, Buddhism, Bahai and Brahmo Samaj, Vivekananda lauded the mission of the Parliament when he cautioned against religious extremism: “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 (Swami Vivekananda: Excerpt from the Opening Address, 9/11/93).” 125 years after this first Parliament, the world still faces ferocious forces of fanaticism and bigotry. But now, the Parliament, interreligious movements, and social justice movements confront such issues by illuminating the positive power of love, inherent in all religions.

Vivekananda’s Call to “Universal Acceptance” and Its Universal Relevance

Swami Vivekananda emphasized the spirit of universal acceptance: “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” (1893 Speech). He invoked the sacred text, Bhagavad-Gita (4.11), to emphasize the message of multiplicity of paths to reach the Truth; Divine. Lord Krishna proclaims: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to Me” (Vivekananda Speech, September 11, 1893). Through this teaching of deep theological insights, Swami Vivekananda sought to provide an antidote for religious intolerance: validation of the truth in each of religious tradition. However, some have misinterpreted his words rendering them as, “all religions are the same,” but, on the contrary, in his last address at the Parliament, he pleaded, “Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian.” Thus, each religion can be seen as a unique strand in the tapestry of the world’s culture, enhancing its beauty, and holding its integrity. Such an approach seeks unity of hearts but not dismantling unique theological, ritual, and philosophical paradigms.

According to Swami Vivekenanda’s philosophical outlook, religions provide complementary manifestations of a single truth. And this one truth is not the “least common denominator” of the religions, but the great totality holding within itself the boundless, variegated richness of all religions. It is also a transcendent reality surpassing even this visible totality, while the religions themselves continue to grow into new forms.  Scholar Jeffery Long points out that this view of religious diversity is neither relativism nor absolutism, but a third way or middle path. Its acceptance can not only enrich each religion through learning from others, but also “has definite implications for human conduct” as we try to progress beyond conflict towards interfaith harmony. Swami Vivekananda’s message, in honoring harmony, as opposed to unity, is aligned with the Parliament’s mission statement. Molly Horan, Communications Director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions,  highlighted the congruence of the vision of Swami Vivekananda with the emphasis of the Parliament, “Swami Vivekananda’s message, we feel, speaks in alignment with our mission to promote harmony between the religious and spiritual communities of the world, and to foster their engagement with the guiding institutions to achieve a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. His message echoes in so much of what we do 125 years later, each time we seek to bring people of difference together, whether it be for understanding, reconciliation and change, or to rally around a common goal.”

Swami Vivekananda’s Continued Relevance: The Parliament’s Expanded Vision

As a reminder of his historic message, Swami Vivekananda’s prophetic 1893 World Parliament of Religions opening speech hangs printed on the walls of the Chicago office where visitors of all religions come to connect with the history and most recent work of the Parliament. His words are often shared in various appearances by Parliament representatives giving talks throughout North America and beyond. Molly Horan states, “His legacy is intertwined with ours and therefore his birth anniversaries and important anniversaries (such as the 125th anniversary of the 1893 at the 2018 Parliament in Toronto this November) devote prominent attention from us communications-wise.” She shared her experience of the public admiration for his message: “ I would say that that the Parliament is so fortunate to be able to continue to celebrate the legacies of several very important figures sent from religious communities all over the world to speak at the 1893 Parliament, and that there has always been heightened adoration for the PWR as an institution across India and beyond, especially among followers of Swami Vivekananda’s teachings throughout the world who celebrate the Parliament every year.” (Interview).

Following Swami Vivekananda’s lead, the Parliament strives toward the common human objectives of harmony, peace, justice, and sustainability through its various declarations and initiatives. In the 1993 Declaration Towards a Global Ethic, the Parliament gives the vision of Swami Vivekananda, along with many other prominent religious leaders, a concrete meaning through the following three principles: respect, justice, peace, and in the 25th year expansion of the document in 2018, sustainability.

In Swami Vivekananda’s opinion, all “religions are different forces in the economy of God, working for the good of mankind… (Excerpt from a 1900 address). The Parliament’s focus on the crucial issues of ecology, justice, women’s dignity, solidarity with indigenous peoples’ and advancement of indigenous rights, confronting hate and violence, and concern for the next generation has made it an international leader in mobilizing the force of religions working together with the secular world and guiding institutions for social, economic, and ecological justice.

125 years later, in the upcoming 7th Parliament, there will be more women participants, a greater diversity of religious voices, and a much more focused vision for interfaith engagement with the shared vision of peace. Vivekananda declared the uniqueness of the Parliament: “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 has produced men and women of the most exalted character… .(Swami Vivekananda, Excerpt from his concluding address to the 1893 Parlaiment ). I concur and add that the Parliament also has shown that religion does not simply provide a space for personal self-discovery and union with the divine, but it also becomes a testing ground for making the world a just, peaceful, and sustainable place.

Land Acknowledgment

The Parliament of the World's Religions acknowledges it is situated on the traditional homelands of the Bodéwadmik (Potawatomi), Hoocąk (Winnebago/Ho’Chunk), Jiwere (Otoe), Nutachi (Missouria), and Baxoje (Iowas); Kiash Matchitiwuk (Menominee); Meshkwahkîha (Meskwaki); Asâkîwaki (Sauk); Myaamiaki (Miami), Waayaahtanwaki (Wea), and Peeyankihšiaki (Piankashaw); Kiikaapoi (Kickapoo); Inoka (Illini Confederacy); Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe), and Odawak (Odawa).

PoWR recognizes the region we now call Chicago remains home to a diversity of Indigenous peoples today and this land upon which we walk, live, and play continues to be Indigenous land.

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