The idea of convening a global religious assembly was suggested by a Chicago lawyer named Charles Carroll Bonney as early as 1889 ahead of the Columbian Exposition to be held in 1893 to celebrate 500 years of Columbus’ discovery of America.

At the Parliament itself, John Henry Barrows, the president of the organising committee, boasted that only an affluent and a Christian nation as America could have hosted an event of such magnitude. Ironically, this sentiment was to be echoed by Vivekananda himself in two successive speeches at the Parliament (September 15 and 19, 1893). Emperor Ashoka’s Councils, the Swami observed, were narrowly Buddhist and those summoned by Akbar, only “parlour meetings”.

I make it a point to mention this here since the intention and substance of Vivekananda’s speeches at Chicago were otherwise quite patriotic.

It is usually believed that one of the dominant influences working behind the Parliament of Religions was the presence of American Unitarians and liberal Christians who were more willing to leave space for non-Christian religions. It is fairly well established that this group had been influential in supporting successive visits by three prominent Indians to England and the US even before 1893: Rammohun Roy (1830), Keshub Chunder Sen (1870) and Protap Chunder Mozumdar (1883).

Impressive contingent

The Indian presence at Chicago was impressive. There were no less than a dozen delegates invited, though not all spoke. There were delegates representing Indian Buddhism, Jainism, Theosophy, the Brahmo Samaj and even Indian Islam and Christianity. The organising committee even invited Dulalchandra Pal, the leader of the Kartabhaja syncretic cult that originated in 18th-century Bengal – but only some 60 years after the man had passed away.

Sadly, both public perception and scholarly inputs have chosen to neglect the presence and the contributions of Indian speakers other than Vivekananda.

Between September 11 and 27, 1893, Swami Vivekananda delivered six speeches at Chicago. Of these, the opening address is the best known if only for the novel and the somewhat dramatic way it was begun, addressing the audience as “Sisters and Brothers of America”. This is contested. While the official history of the Parliament notes how “a peal of applause that lasted for several minutes” followed Vivekananda’s opening words, a contemporary publication titled A Chorus of Faith as Heard in the Parliament of Religions (Chicago, Unity Publishing Co, 1893) altogether omits such a reference.

In summary, the following features stand out in Vivekananda’s Chicago speeches:

*An argument in favour of religious tolerance and accommodation as against self-righteousness and bigotry as aptly illustrated by the “frog in the well” (kupamanduka) story. In substance, Vivekananda emphasised the religious pluralism embedded in Hinduism. Contrary to commonplace perception, he did not try to advocate the idea of a Universal religion, not even of a unity of religious thought or practice but the idea of a common goal or destiny (human salvation) for every religious community

*The questioning of religious conversion itself, arguing that holiness, purity and charity was not the exclusive premise of any one sect or church

Vivekananda at the Chicago gathering. Credit: Parliament of Religion, 1893 [Public domain]

Vivekananda’s pluralism was somewhat marred by his denying autonomy to Buddhism in relation to Hinduism. Further, his attempts to project Hinduism as a universalistic religion forced him to speak within a hierarchic framework of argument, with Hinduism or at least his projection of it, at the top.

He does not appear to have adequately addressed the question of whether agreement between various religious traditions was a precondition of religious harmony. What Vivekananda did not also openly acknowledge is that even a dialogic openness between religions or admitting that they all pointed to the same God did not necessarily mean that all religions were in essence the same.

In substance, his addresses at the Parliament were more enthused by a buoyant patriotism than a religious re-statement. This was true of most delegates from colonised Asia.

Even on his first visit to US in 1883, Protap Chunder Mozoomdar, a leader of the Hindu reform movement, had accused the West of misjudging India and Indians: “[W] hat the Occidental mind does not understand, it sets down to mysticism…you have no experience to give us but plenty of theories and criticisms.”

In 1893 itself, a paper by author and social reformer Manilal Nanubhai Dwivedi countered presumptions in Western Christianity by suggesting how Biblical chronology itself was untenable in the light of science.

On occasion, Vivekananda’s patriotism even got the better of his sense of historical objectivity. Two such instances occur in his opening address itself as when he identified Hinduism as the “mother of all religions” and wrongly claimed the Hindus to produce the earliest order of monastics whereas that is more correctly associated with Buddhism.

In hindsight, Vivekananda’s popularity at Chicago may be attributed to several factors. First, there was undoubtedly the charisma of the man himself. Second, some of his statements fed into the contemporary American psyche. His point about the perfectibility of man proved attractive to a young nation, greatly attuned to notions of success and power. Similarly, his critique of doctrinal Christianity came at a time when the American mind was growing disenchanted with it.

Temple entry denied

While there was much patriotic jubilation in India following Vivekananda’s success in America, it is often overlooked that on his return to India, the much-acclaimed Swami was denied access to the Dakshineswar temple complex itself, where he often visited his guru, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.

Reportedly, this was done on the ground that he had suffered a fall from ritual purity for having crossed the seas. Some contested the idea of a Kayastha representing High Hinduism, a right reserved only for Brahmins. Such conflicting perceptions remain an unsavoury side to the events of 1893. It would appear as though an otherwise proud and grateful nation also revealed moments of cultural amnesia and ingratitude.

Amiya P. Sen is a historian with an interest in the intellectual and cultural history of modern India, and has written extensively on Swami Vivekananda, including Indispensable Vivekananda.

This article is a part of Saha Sutra on, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India.