Swami Vivekananda: Belated birthday wishes

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Shoot! I had meant to blog about this back in January, but then I forgot. January 12 was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Swami Vivekananda, who represented Hinduism at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago and founded the Vedanta Society, the first Hindu organization (to my knowledge) in the United States. Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, Indian-based organizations founded by Vivekananda, are organizing a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary which includes service projects, consistent with the social-service focus of Vivekananda’s brand of Hinduism. You can learn more at the website they’ve created to promote the 150th anniversary. (The banner that heads this post was downloaded from there.)

As my own nod to Vivekananda, here’s the opening lines of the speech he gave at the World’s Parliament. As he himself tells it, the crowd burst into thunderous applause at his opening, “Sisters and brothers of America!” Snarky as I am, I’m inclined to view that reaction as 19th-century American liberals bursting with the self-congratulatory thrill of feeling cosmopolitan while simultaneously being singled out for recognition. Of course, it’s self-congratulatory for Vivekananda to be telling us about their applause, too.

As you read the quotation, note the rhetorical complexity of how Vivekananda touts the primacy, ergo superiority, of Hinduism and the East–Hinduism is the mother of religions; the East is the origin of the idea of toleration–even as he celebrates the equalizing message of universal toleration and acceptance. I read that move as an act of resistance to the way that the Parliament’s American Christian organizers were using the equalizing format of the Parliament–everyone gets to speak; everyone shares the stage–as a vehicle to tout the superiority of Christianity, America, and the West. Complexity and tension all around.

Sisters and Brothers of America,

It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us. I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; 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. My thanks, also, to some of the speakers on this platform who, referring to the delegates from the Orient, have told you that these men from far-off nations may well claim the honour of bearing to different lands the idea of toleration. I am 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. . . .

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