The current issue of Intelligent Life, the culture-technology-lifestyle sibling of The Economist, poses the question “What was the greatest speech ever?” Six writers were asked to give their choices. Mark Tully, BBC’s former bureau chief for India, has chosen Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the first World’s Parliament of Religion in Chicago in 1893. Picks by the others include Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Nelson Mandela’s speech at his trial in 1964, and Hillary Clinton’s speech on women’s rights at Beijing in 1995.
Most literate Indians are aware of Vivekananda’s speech (I hope), or at least its beginning: “Sisters and brothers of America”. What is less known is that the several thousands of delegates—most of them Christians—were so impressed with this 30-year-old Hindu monk’s words that he was invited to speak five more times over the next fortnight at the congregation. As Tully notes, New York Herald said, “Vivekananda is undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions.” “He was relevant then and is relevant today for his constant affirmation that all religions are paths to God, and his call for tolerance,” writes Tully.
What was so dazzling about that speech?
It’s just 458 words long, so could not have lasted more than five or six minutes (It was also delivered extempore). Vivekananda speaks on one single theme: what he believes is the core value of Hinduism, and the most precious one. “I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance,” he says. “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 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 paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.’”
To go back a little. The way that Vivekananda arrived at the vast hall of Chicago’s Art Institute is itself quite an incredible story. After the death of his Master, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Vivekananda had lived the life of a wandering mendicant for nearly seven years, travelling the length and breadth of the country. The more he saw the wretched condition of the Indian masses, the more convinced he was that what they needed was less religion and more spirituality (Don’t be put off by that word, Vivekananda’s version of “spirituality” was pragmatic, robust and even physical). Centuries of oppression, poverty and obscurantism had crushed the Indian spirit. What they needed first and foremost, he decided, was inner strength, a confidence that could help them achieve their potential. God, he felt, need not be worshipped on an empty stomach. Two square meals a day were far more important than a visit to a temple, and those meals could come only when a man realized the power inherent in himself, his own divinity, that God resided inside him, as He did in all Creation (If you take “God” and “divinity” out of this observation, it is fundamentally no different from a humanist/atheist argument).
Money earned literally through begging door to door, and donations from three South Indian kings, enabled Vivekananda to reach Chicago in July 1893. On arrival, he learnt to his dismay that no delegate would be admitted to Parliament without proper credentials from a bona fide organization. Vivekananda was a lone monk representing no organization, and even if he had been, the last date for registration of delegates was past. In addition, the Parliament was two months away. He had neither the money to return to India nor to live for two months in Chicago and take a chance at gate-crashing the convention. Unwilling to accept defeat, and being told that Boston was a cheaper city than Chicago, he boarded a train to that city. On the way, a wealthy lady co-passenger got into a conversation with him, and was impressed enough to invite him to come and stay in her country home. Vivekananda accepted gratefully, and through his hostess, happened to meet J.H. Wright, a professor of Greek at Harvard. The young monk’s calm wisdom astonished him, and he wrote to the chairman of the committee for the selection of delegates, a friend, and bought him a ticket to Chicago. But when he reached Chicago on 9 September, Vivekananda discovered that he had lost the address of the committee.
Walking the streets, he kept asking people about the Parliament, but no one knew anything, and he spent the night in an empty boxcar in a railroad freight yard. Next morning, he started off on his quest again in the richer neighbourhoods of the city. After hours of being shooed away by butlers who saw only a bedraggled foreign beggar when they opened the door, he sat down, exhausted, on the pavement. Miraculously, the door of a mansion across the road opened and the lady of the house appeared, and asked him whether he was a delegate to the Parliament of Religions. Mrs George Hale, whose family would become lifelong friends of Vivekananda, invited him in, and after he had cleaned up and eaten, took him over to the office of the committee and had him registered.
The convention began the next day, 11 September. Yes, it was a 9/11.
As speaker after speaker representing all the major religions of the world gave lengthy speeches from prepared texts, touting the superiority of their particular faiths, the young man from India realized that neither had he ever addressed such a large gathering (nearly four thousand people), nor did he have any written speech. Frightened now, he kept postponing his turn on the stage, till he had no further excuses left, and had to go up and face the audience.
With his very first lines, he established his credentials with a simplicity and pride that must have awed the listeners who would anyway have been intrigued by the looks of this handsome young man in a saffron turban and dress from the East who spoke perfect English. “I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world,” said Vivekananda. “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.” This was a man who had never been out of India, had spent years tending to the poor and the diseased as he searched for the divine, and was speaking entirely off the cuff of his soul. In the next five minutes that he spoke, he electrified the audience—and, one can’t help but surmise, shamed many of the speakers who had preceded him. For he spoke of the validity of every great religion and against all forms of faith-based intolerance. “Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth,” he said. “They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization 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.” There is obviously no record of this, but there would have been very few speakers at that grand convention who had shared hovels with lepers and gone without food for days to seek a greater truth.
In his concluding address on the last day of the convention, Vivekananda again stressed harmony and acceptance. “Much has been said of the common ground of religious unity. I am not going just now to venture my own theory. But if anyone here hopes that this unity will come by the triumph of any one of the religions and the destruction of the others, to him I say, ‘Brother, yours is an impossible hope.’ Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid. The seed is put in the ground, and earth and air and water are placed around it. Does the seed become the earth, or the air, or the water? No. It becomes a plant. It develops after the law of its own growth, assimilates the air, the earth, and the water, converts them into plant substance, and grows into a plant. Similar is the case with religion. The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth… Holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world… If anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart.”
Writes Tully in his piece to explain why he chose this speech as the greatest of all time: “Vivekananda’s speeches at Parliament resonate today for the many who claim to be spiritual but not religious, who reject religion based on faith and seek experience of God. He said: ‘The Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe a certain doctrine or dogma, but in realizing—not in believing, but in being and becoming.’ And, looking to the future, he said, ‘It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity… Its whole scope, its whole force will be centred in aiding humanity to realize its own, true, divine nature.’ That is the religion so many seek today.”
Have there ever been truer words spoken about the sheer waste and stupidity of religious schisms than what that fiery young Indian said on that 9/11 day 120 years ago?
To read about Vivekananda today—and what he preached and practised throughout his tragically short life (he passed away at 39)—is to wonder that such a man walked the streets of this nation. Of course he was a Hindu, and he was proud to be one. But his philosophy transcended religions and he had little respect for rituals and ceremonies. His constant focus was on the spirit of Man. “This world is the great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong,” he wrote. “Each individual has to work out his own salvation; there is no other way, and so also with nations… Men in general lay all the blame of life on their fellowmen, or, failing that, on God, or they conjure up a ghost, and say it is fate. Where is fate, and who is fate? We reap what we sow. We are the makers of our own fate. None else has the blame, none has the praise. The wind is blowing; and those vessels whose sails are unfurled catch it, and go forward on their way, but those which have their sails furled do not catch the wind. Is that the fault of the wind?”
The year 2013 is his 150th birth anniversary year. It is our duty to make sure that Vivekananda is not appropriated by any polemicist or politician, or even any religion. It is our duty to make sure that his name is not taken in vain (to use a Christian term) and his words are not used to push any agenda other than the greatest good for all men. Let us not deify him either (he never could give up smoking, though he tried hard enough); he would have hated that. He was a man, and a man among men. That is what we owe him.