Swami Vivekananda represented India and Hinduism at the Parliament of the World’s Religions (1893) 125 years ago. This was the first World’s Parliament of Religions and was held from September 11 to 27, 1893, at the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the World's Columbian Exposition.
The Parliament was a unique phenomenon in the history of religions. Never before had representatives of the world’s great religions been brought together in one place, where they might without fear tell of their respective beliefs to thousands of people. The proposed objectives were (Ref. World’s Parliament of Religions, ed. John Henry Barrows, 1893) -1 To bring together in conference for the first time in history, the leading representatives of the great Historic Religions of the world and 2. To show to men, in the most impressive way, what and how many important truths the various Religions hold and teach in common.
At ten o’clock, ten solemn strokes of the New Liberty Bell which was inscribed “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another”, proclaimed the opening of the Parliament -- each stroke of the bell representing one of the ten chief religions—Theism, Judaism, Mohammedanism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Zoroastrianism, Catholicism, the Greek Church, and Protestantism.
The delegates for the Parliament gathered at the Hall of Columbus. Vivekananda gave his first lecture on September 11. Towards the afternoon his turn came. Though initially nervous, he bowed to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, and he felt that he got new energy in his mind. 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 he began his speech with salutation. He got a standing ovation from a crowd of seven thousand as soon as he uttered his first words, "Sisters and brothers of America!” The whole crowd rose to its feet and cheered him wildly 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.”
The previous speakers had all spoken in formalised 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-recognised hero of the Parliament.
Rev. John Henry Barrows, the President of the Parliament, wrote in his official history of “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.”
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...”
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 lionised in both the US and the UK thereafter.
Call for the end to fanaticism: Swami Vivekananda closed by speaking of humanity’s history of violence and his hopes for its end, “Sectarianism, bigotry, and it’s 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 has 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.”
Coincidence of dates: Occasionally, one of these so-called coincidences is so strong as to leave us momentarily speechless. Such a coincidence exists with the date of Swami Vivekananda’s message. This first message of Swami Vivekananda in America, often said to be a key point of the bridging of Eastern and Western spirituality, and the coming of yoga to the West, was given on September 11, 1893, Exactly 108 years after, the delegates for the Parliament gathered at the Hall of Columbus on September 11, 2001, the date of the bombing of the World Trade Center. Whether by coincidence or precognition, it calls out for a closer reading of Swami Vivekananda message and its appropriateness for our current times.
"I will quote to you brethren a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest childhood, 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.'
This day of September 11 has not only been observed in India but greatly acknowledged by the world.
The Governor of the State of Illinois USA has taken the initiative to commemorate the September 11 as the 125th Anniversary of Swamijees great speech and mentioned it in the Proclamation.