Part II of Vivekananda and Uncle Sam: Histories, Stories, Politics
It is the World Parliament of Religions which first brought Americans face to face with a living emissary of ‘Hinduism’, a circumstance wrought with ironies. The Parliament was itself one of various congresses convened in 1893 to celebrate the quadricentennial of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the Americas. As Columbus set landfall in the Americas, he imagined he had reached India. We need not be detained here by a consideration of the far-reaching consequences of that mistake—none as calamitous as the genocide of native Americans—except to suggest that, in a manner of speaking, Vivekananda arrived in the United States in the wake of that mistake. If what has come to be celebrated as the inclusiveness of American society was predicated on an exclusiveness that called for nothing less than the wholesale extermination of the peoples of the Americas and the subsequent enslavement of Africans, the World’s Columbian Exposition would echo that worldview. The Parliament billed itself as the world’s largest gathering of the representatives of religions from the world, and so eminent a scholar as Max Muller, one of the pioneers of the comparative study of religion, signified his approbation of the enterprise with the observation that the Parliament ‘stands unique, stands unprecedented in the whole history of the world.’ Yet, American Indian religions were excluded, on the supposition that Native Americans, though not without culture, could not be viewed as possessing something that might be called ‘religion’; likewise, insofar as Africans (and African Americans) received any representation, it was only to the extent that they were members of some Christian denomination.
Ten faiths were conceived by the organizers as the world’s great religions and invited to send their representatives; alongside the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and Zoroastrianism were six religions originating in South Asia and the Far East: Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Some Christian leaders objected to the Parliament on the grounds that it furnished parity to all faiths and thus undermined Christianity, ‘the one religion’ as described by the Archbishop of Canterbury. ‘I do not understand’, the Archbishop wrote in a letter to the organizers, ‘how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other intended members and the parity of their positions and claims.’ With respect to the Parliament’s proceedings, the greater preponderance of the papers dwelled on Christianity—152 out of 194, to be precise. Virchand Gandhi appeared as the sole spokesperson for Jainism; today his statue stands outside the Jain temple in Chicago, an emblem of a community’s gratefulness for having brought visibility to a faith which had historically been confined to India.
It is on September 11th, now a day of infamy in America, that James Cardinal Gibbons opened the Parliament by leading the delegates in the Lord’s Prayer. At the Parliament, only two representatives spoke up on behalf of Islam—a rather slim participation, considering the fact that Christianity and Islam had encountered each other repeatedly over the centuries, and not always, notwithstanding the popular understanding of Islam in the West, as hostile faiths. In retrospect, Islam’s extraordinarily miniscule presence at the World Parliament in 1893 may be read as a premonition of the fact that Islam and Christianity have an extraordinary amount of terrain to cover if they are going to engage in a genuine inter-faith dialogue. For the worldwide Indian diaspora, September 11th luckily augurs other possibilities. More than a decade after Vivekananda delivered his rousing address, across the world in Johannesburg Gandhi gathered together with friends, associates, and ‘delegates from various places in the Transvaal’ on the evening of September 11th, 1906, to consider how best South African Indians could resist the injustices imposed on them. Such was, in Gandhi’s own words, ‘the advent of satyagraha’, the term he coined to signal not only the birth of a new movement of nonviolent resistance but an entire worldview. But that is another story: back in Chicago, on the afternoon of September 11th in 1893, Vivekananda mounted the stage and Hinduism was, in the received view, itself propelled on the world stage. Vivekananda had shared the dais alongside other ‘representatives’ of Hinduism: among others, there were Siddhu Ram, ‘an appeal writer’ from ‘Mooltan, Punjab’; the Reverend B. B. Nagarkar, a minister of the ‘Brahmo-Somaj’ of Bombay; Professor G. N. Chakravarti; Jinda Ram, President of the Temperance Society, Muzzafargarh; and the Reverend P. C. Mozoomdar, Minister and leader of the ‘Brahmo-Somaj’ of Calcutta. Those other names are now lost to history—whatever they may have said, they appear to have been swept aside by Vivekananda. And, yet, Virchand Gandhi, speaking on behalf of Jainism, provided a different perspective: not only Vivekananda, but all the Indian delegates, Virchand Gandhi wrote, were a great draw, and ‘at least a third and sometimes two-thirds of the great audience . . . would make a rush for the exits when a fine orator from India had closed his speech.’
By all accounts, and these are not only narratives that have come down to us from his acolytes and other advocates of Hindu nationalism, Vivekananda had an electrifying impact on his audience. ‘Sisters and Brothers of America’, Vivekananda proceeded to say—and with this he brought his audience of 7,000 to its feet. The Presbyterian minister, Rev. John Henry Barrows, in whose charge the organization of the Parliament had been placed, wrote in his official two-volume history of the Parliament that Vivekananda’s initial words were followed by ‘a peal of applause that lasted for several minutes’; by his own testimony, Vivekananda was the most popular speaker at the Parliament. Once the din of the applause had subsided, Vivekananda thanked the people present ‘in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world’, ‘in the name of the mother of religions’, and ‘in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects.’ Vivekananda declared himself proud ‘to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. 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.’ Vivekananda would drive home what he viewed as the essentially ecumenical character of the Indian, and particularly Hindu, religious sensibility by reminding his audience of a hymn which he remembered repeating in childhood, ‘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.’
In Vivekananda’s opening address, the first of many he was to deliver at the Parliament, are already present some though by no means all of the characteristic features of the interpretive strategies that he was to deploy to great effect in his public performances in the West. There is no disputing the fact that India had given shelter to the ‘remnant of the grand Zoroastrian nation’, just as it had accorded hospitality to the Jews being hounded in much of the rest of the world. His immediate audience may not have known all this, but Vivekananda was indisputably on firm ground. However, there is already a tacit claim, one which would receive fuller expression once Vivekananda went on the lecture circuit in the United States, about the superiority of Hinduism over other religions. He describes Hinduism as ‘a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance’, but at once appears to be suggesting that this may not be true of other religions. When he adds, ‘We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true’, there is far more than a hint that Hinduism occupies a unique place in the pantheon on account of the fact that it accepts all religions as true. ‘We’, the adherents of Hinduism, practice ‘universal toleration’; but what of the adherents of other religions? Addressing his audience briefly on September 20th, Vivekananda advised Christians that they ‘must always be ready for good criticism’: having arrived in India in large numbers ‘to save the soul of the heathens’, they were yet to understand that ‘the crying evil in the East is not religion—they have religion enough—but it is bread that the suffering millions of burning India cry out for with parched throats.’
It has been argued that as much as his teachings, it was the vast impress of his personality that turned Vivekananda into a sensation. The Chicago Inter Ocean reported that ‘great crowds of people, the most of whom were women’, would arrive an hour before the afternoon session was to commence, ‘for it had been announced that Swami Vivekananda, the popular Hindu Monk, who looks so much like McCullough’s Othello, was to speak.’ The Boston Evening Transcript was similarly candid in its assessment that ‘the four thousand fanning people in the Hall of Columbus’ were prepared to sit through an hour or two of other speeches with a smiling countenance, ‘to listen to Vivekananda for fifteen minutes.’ Harriet Monroe, a well-known figure in literary circles, was struck by his voice, characterizing it ‘as rich as a bronze bell’. Vivekananda had arrived in the United States with some hope of procuring funds with which he could carry out his mission in India; in America, on the other hand, he appeared to some as a good business proposition, the proverbial wise man from the East with a charm, poise, good looks, and a command over English. No sooner was the Parliament over that Vivekananda was signed up on the lecture circuit.
(to be continued)
See also Part I: Before Vivkekananda