As the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda nears, a journey down history lane to the first World Parliament of Religions and the story of its revival in recent times.
The Institute of Art in Chicago attracts many visitors who come here to see its vast collection numbering about 300,000. The Institute's Chinese gallery is particularly rich, and attracts huge crowds. But many Indians come here for very different reasons. They come to see the place where Swami Vivekananda delivered his address to the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. It was here, inside the Institute's sprawling campus, that the World Parliament was held.
A plaque on the wall commemorates Swami Vivekananda's historic address. A door in the wall opens into an auditorium. The auditorium, which came up later, is where the speech that made the Swami known all over the Western world is believed to have been delivered.
I went in and sat in silence in the empty auditorium for a few minutes to get a feel of how the place must have been at that time.
In the late 1880s, Chicago was preparing to celebrate 400 years of Christopher Columbus' discovery of the continent. The itinerant explorer, who had set out to find India, had ended up on the American shores instead. That chance landing had made America what it was today.
The Chicago exposition was meant to showcase the best that the United States had to offer. A grand display of America as an emerging power: its economic progress, industrial prowess, and above all, its new sense of nationhood.
As preparations began, Charles Bonney, an influential lawyer, pointed out that it was not enough to showcase America's material progress. “Something nobler and higher is demanded by the progressive spirit of the present age,” he urged. The idea went home, and a committee under Bonney was set up to hold 20 world congresses. Almost every conceivable subject ranging from public health to women's progress were covered. The idea of a world parliament of religions was one of them. It outshone every other event.
The organisers sounded some prominent religious people around the world about the proposed congress. The idea was generally well received. Prof. Max Mueller was among those who endorsed it, though he could not attend it. But there were a few who did not approve of it. Among them was Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey. As a result, Islamic scholars kept away. Muslim participation in the first parliament was minimal.
The congress symbolised the American people's growing curiosity about eastern religions. It was as if they wanted to discover other worlds of faith and belief. The Americans' new sense of self-confidence, almost three decades after the end of the Civil War, made them curious about the world beyond their own. They were reaching out to discover the world like Columbus had discovered their continent 400 years earlier. Emerson and Thoreau had generated some vague interest in eastern religious philosophies, but nothing beyond. They now wanted to know more.
The organisers expected the meeting to emphasise the “unity of theism” in the background of the rise of 19th century atheism. What it did instead was underline the “plurality” of religious faiths and practices rather than “unity”. This paved the way for the emergence of comparative religion as an academic discipline and its place in the syllabi of many US universities.
For followers of oriental religions, the parliament provided a platform for presenting their religious philosophies outside the framework of colonial relations. It was their opportunity for engaging in a dialogue bypassing their European masters. Swami Vivekananda, Anagarika Dharmapala of Ceylon and Shaku Soyen of Japan represented the East.
The first parliament was followed by the second 40 years later in 1933 in Chicago itself. The theme was Fellowship of Faiths. But another 40 years later, the concept was all but forgotten. The third world parliament, due in 1973, just didn't happen. Everybody seemed to have lost interest.
In December 1982, The Hindu carried a letter by one Ramamurty of Madras bemoaning the fact that the third world parliament of religions had failed to materialise. Ramamurty made a case for holding it 50 years later, the following year: He wrote: “I do hope this thought will reach Chicago and competent person or persons will organise the third conference of religions for the unity of all religions. May this message reach Chicago!”
And, it did reach Chicago.
American sociologist Prof. Nathan Glazer, who happened to be in India around the time, read the letter — and forwarded it to Prof. Joseph M. Kitagawa, former Dean of the Divinity School. Ramamurty's letter stirred up things a bit, but not enough. Kitagawa acknowledged the letter in a public lecture, but indicated that he may not be the “competent person” Ramamurty had sought to locate.
In 1988, two monks of the Vivekananda Vedanta Centre of Chicago proposed that an organisation be set up to handle it in future. Thus, the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions was created as a not-for-profit organisation with an international board. It was under the Council's aegis that Ramamurty's dream fructified and a parliament of religions was organised in 1993, as a centennial event.
Then on, things began to move smoothly. Another world parliament was held in Cape Town (South Africa) in 1999, followed by still another in Barcelona (Spain) in 2004. The last one was held in Melbourne in 2009. The Council made it a five-yearly event — with inter-faith dialogue as its main focus. Several Islamic schoars are now on its board. The Council now runs a permanent secretariat in downtown Chicago.
Amelia Perkins who I met at the Council office, helpfully fished out reports of the 1893 parliament for me. She admitted that few people in Chicago today remembered the Swami and his historic speech. The 150th birth anniversary event that the Indian government plans to organise in Chicago, if thoughtfully done, may help remind the Chicagoans about the Swami who had changed the terms of religious discourse right in their city, 118 years ago.