When Vivekananda reconstructed Hinduism

Print edition : November 09, 2018

A view of the World's Parliament of Religions, which opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: The Hindu

At the Parliament of Religions (left to right), the Jain scholar Mirchand Gandhi, the Buddhist monk Anagarika Hewivitarne, Swami Vivekananda and local parliamentarians. Photo: Vivekananda Illam

The real success of Swami Vivekananda’s iconic speech at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 lay in his ability to rise above theological strife and the historical constraints of the times.

AS I sit down to write my column for Frontline, I am overwhelmed by a sense of urgency to catch up with news from 125 years ago. At that time, the big news in India was a speech delivered in Chicago by an obscure Indian, Swami Vivekananda. The urgency to get back to that comes from an apprehension that Vivekananda’s message to us may have been lost. How authentic is the claim of some of his followers that they alone offer the true interpretation? 

When we read Vivekananda’s words once again with care today, it seems that we are yet to appreciate the full significance of his message. Consider, for instance, Vivekananda’s comments on how Christianity was elaborated “in a patronising way”. By way of a reply to the Christian missionary effort to belittle other religions, Vivekananda spoke on the tenth day of the Chicago Conference. In his speech entitled “Religion is not the crying need of India”, he said: “You Christians who are so fond of sending out missionaries to save the soul of the heathen —why do you not try to save their bodies from starvation? ...they ask for bread, but we give them stones. It is an insult to starving people to offer them religion, it is an insult to a starving man to teach him metaphysics” (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Calcutta, 1963, hereafter cited as CWSV, Volume I, page 20).

Exactly 125 years ago, on September 19, 1893, Swami Vivekananda spoke on Hinduism at the Chicago Parliament of Religions. It was a speech that would reverberate around the world. And numerous commentaries have been made, for many decades since, on the words then uttered. And yet, we may question ourselves whether we have fully realised the significance of that moment, that effort to reconstruct Hinduism by one of the many delegates from India at the world forum on September 19.

From the long view of history, what is the significance of that day and hour? It holds an import that may not be clear from the text of the proceedings at the Chicago Parliament of Religions. The import becomes clear only when we consider the context, the historical conjuncture, and ask, why did Vivekananda’s speech create such an impact? 

The answer is not easy to find. After all, Vivekananda’s was not the first exposition of its kind in the Western world. One can recall, for example, the writings of Raja Rammohan Roy or the speeches of Keshab Chandra Sen, or at the Chicago Parliament itself, Reverend Dharmapal or P.C. Mazoomdar, who shared the podium with Vivekananda. Thus, Vivekananda’s celebrated success was not due to the chronological accident of being the first on the scene. Secondly, the message of classical Hindu texts was no longer new in the West when Vivekananda went to Chicago. 

For about a century before that, the Orientalist scholars of Europe, particularly the English and the Germans, had translated many Sanskrit texts so as to allow Western people access to those texts. Vivekananda might have construed those texts in his own fashion but many of them had already been construed before. Thus, novelty was not the reason why Vivekananda’s speech produced such an impact. 

A third possible explanation (apart from the charismatic personality of Vivekananda) may be that Vivekananda’s Chicago speech marked the beginning of an initiative that fructified into a missionary and ideological movement of vast proportions. It is perfectly true that the speech did mark such a beginning. But then, that is known to us only by virtue of our historical hindsight. It could not have been self-evident to Vivekananda’s compatriots in India in 1893 because that missionary and ideological movement was at that time part of an unknowable future. That is obviously no explanation of the reception of Vivekananda’s speech in Chicago in 1893.

Therefore, we see that these explanations are inadequate, and that they cannot fully explain the impact of that speech on the contemporary mind. Perhaps we have to seek an explanation in the historical conjuncture when the speech was delivered. Consider the events in India between 1857 and 1893, as well as the scene abroad. 

Let us examine the five years immediately preceding 1893. In 1888, France secured an imperialist hold over Indo-China including Cambodia. In 1889, Italy claimed Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, and Cecil Rhodes obtained Britain’s support towards expansion of the Cape Colony in South Africa. In 1890, Britain secured her occupation of Uganda and Nigeria and in the next year she cut up Borneo into pieces to be shared with Holland. In 1892, Britain came into conflict with the ruler of Egypt and the French fought and defeated the king of Dahomey in West Africa. In 1893, the United States annexed Hawaii, while the French crushed native resistance in Siam and the British suppressed the Metabele rebellion in South Africa and the tribal resistance in India’s north-west border. These are just some representative events in the tide of imperialist advance around the time the Chicago conference met. In fact, the conference itself was a part of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in the year following the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America, bringing about Europe’s penetration and domination in the American continents. 

Historical perspective

It is interesting to note that Vivekananda emphasised Western domination of the world in his speech on September 19: “We who have come from the east have sat here day after day and have been told in a patronising way that we ought to accept Christianity because Christian nations are the most prosperous. We look about us and we see England, the most prosperous nation in the world, with her foot on the neck of 250 million Asiatics. We look back into history and see that the prosperity of Christian Europe began with Spain. Spain’s prosperity began with the invasion of Mexico. Christianity wins its prosperity by cutting the throats of its fellowmen” (The Times, Dubuque, Iowa, September 29, 1893, cited in M.L. Burke, Swami Vivekananda in America, Calcutta, 1966, pages 81-82). These remarks indicate Vivekananda’s historical perspective. In the context of the fact that he was speaking at a conference which came in the wake of the colonisation of North and South America by European powers, and the Christopher Columbus celebrations, this statement was especially significant.

Vivekananda’s own speeches in reply to the many addresses of welcome emphasise the intrinsic merit of the Vedantic outlook, but to the common citizens the confrontation with the West had a significance other than that of spiritual discourse. This was understandable in the historical conjuncture I have tried to outline.


In this context, let us also remember two other historical facts: racial discrimination in North America at the end of the 19th century and the concerted Christian effort to assert Christian superiority in the Chicago Conference in 1893. Racism was a part of Vivekananda’s personal experience in America. He wrote to Mrs Bull about his being turned out of a hotel on account of colour-bar at Baltimore (Collected Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume VI, page 279, to Mrs Bull, October 271894). There is similar evidence in his biography (Life, Volume III, page 226). On each occasion, it should be recorded, he received the support of liberal-minded Americans. A very touching example is cited by Marie Louise Burke. Vivekananda stayed during the Chicago conference as a guest of John B. Lyon at 262 Michigan Avenue. The lady of the house welcomed Vivekananda late in the evening, but “when she went to bed she was somewhat troubled (her granddaughter writes). Some of our guests were Southerners…. Southerners have a strong dislike for associating with anyone but whites…. When my grandfather woke up, she told him of the problem and said he must decide whether it would be uncomfortable for Swami and for our Southern friends to be together.” In the event, grandfather Lyon decided that Vivekananda was a “brilliant and interesting man” and must stay as guest, no matter what other guests thought of it (M.L. Burke, ibid., pages 100-101). 

In such apparently small ways racism—and its opposite, a liberal spirit—were evinced. Racism was also evident in the white American attitude to the American Indians. White settlers’ incursions into traditional American Indian territories were legalised in September 1893 (while the Chicago Conference was meeting) in the case of appropriation of Cherokee Indian lands. In the preceding two years, there were outbreaks of conflict with Cherokee and Sioux Indians, and in December 1890 the famous chief of the Sioux, Sitting Bull, was killed. It is a matter of speculation whether Vivekananda sympathised with the American victims of racism. But it is likely that his scepticism about the authenticity of the Christian spirit was influenced by his awareness of these forms of Western racism.

That brings us to the other historical factor which Vivekananda had to contend with and which added to his credit: he was a spokesman from outside the pale of Christianity. The Chicago Parliament of Religions nurtured a strong Christian defence of the faith against other religions. On September 19, the day Vivekananda spoke, the air was thick with invectives. It continued in that fashion about “the greasy bull of Madura and Tanjore”, “adherents of false religions”, and so on until the last day. “Brethren all, yet they indulged in sharp words” was a newspaper headline of reports on September 19. (M.L. Burke, ibid., page 80).

But the historical conjuncture—the resentment of the oppressed peoples in two continents under Western dominance, the emotional reaction to Western racism, the resistance of old civilisations and religions to aggressive Christian missionary zeal—assigned to Vivekananda a contestatory position. It was Vivekananda’s ability to hold his own in this position which accounts for Vivekananda’s celebrated success at the Chicago Parliament of Religions as the spokesman of the eastern world. His utterances found a resonance not only in the hearts of his compatriots in India, which is evident from the congratulatory and welcome addresses he received from his countrymen. Let us recall the impact of Vivekananda in the speeches and letters from his compatriots in India. For example, the address of welcome to Vivekananda at Ramnad: “Your Holiness has crossed boundless seas and oceans to convey the message of truth, peace, and to plant the flag of India’s spiritual triumph and glory in the rich soil of Europe and America…. Above all your lectures in the West have tended to awaken apathetic sons and daughters of India to a sense of the greatness and glory of their ancestral faith…” (CWSV, Vol. III, page 144). Likewise, the “Zamindars and citizens of Shivaganga and Manamadura” were impressed with the ability of Vivekananda to “convey the greatest message of the East to the West” (CWSV, III, page 163). The address of welcome in Colombo (CWSV., III, p. 103), Madras (CWSV, III, page 200), Paramakudi (CWSV, III, page 155), Madurai (CWSV, III, page 169), Almora (CWSV, III, page 350), and so on harp on this theme of Vivekananda’s triumphal march in the West, as Indians perceived it.

The greatness of Vivekananda was his ability to rise above the contest, if it can be called so, between religious faiths. In his major speech on Hinduism on September 19 he focussed on certain universalities above the narrow particularism of religious contestations. The core universal concept in his speech is the concept of unity, alike in religious experience and in science. The speech begins with an assertion of the syncretism of Hinduism: “From the high spiritual flights of the Vedanta philosophy… to the low ideas of idolatry with its multifarious mythology, the agnosticism of the Buddhists, and the atheism of the Jains, each and all have a place in the Hindu’s religion.” Then followed an exposition of the concept of Advaita (unity) and the striking thought that “Science is nothing but the search for unity” and thus a parallel between the quest of man in the spiritual and scientific realms.

Turning to “the religion of the ignorant”, Vivekananda explains many features attacked by Christian missionaries as a means used by the Hindu to reach the same end that every religion aims at. “The Hindu may have failed to carry out all his plans, but if there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in place or time… which will not be Brahminic or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammadan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development…. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognise divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force will be centred in aiding humanity to realise its own true, divine nature”. (CWSV, I, page 19). 

This humanist universalism accounts for Vivekananda’s enduring influence. The historical context I have tried to analyse explains in part his success in his mission in September 1893 at Chicago. But his real success lay in his ability to rise above the theological strife, above the historical constraints of the times on members of a subjected people. It is given to few to overcome history and he was one of them.

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