125th Anniversary of Chicago address
“Sisters and Brothers of America.”
This was how Swami Vivekananda began his address to the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago on Sept. 11, 1893. By accepting people of a country different from his as his own, he embodied the very essence of the universalism of humanity, the idea of Vasudaiva Kutumbakam — “The whole world is one Family”.
It is important for us now, 125 years later, to revisit this speech that remains as relevant now as it was then. In a world that actively spreads hatred and intolerance towards fellow human beings, his message holds the potential to unlock a wave of change that can transform the world for the better.
Swami Vivekananda, his mission, and his speech have played a huge role in shaping the way Indian culture, religion, and history are perceived by Indians themselves, as well by people from other countries. Former President Barack Obama, in a speech during his visit to India in 2010, said, “...It’s the richness of faiths celebrated by a visitor to my hometown of Chicago more than a century ago — the renowned Swami Vivekananda. He said that, ‘holiness, purity, and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character.’”
Standing in the Chicago Art Institute 8,000 miles away from his motherland, Swami Vivekananda called upon the teachings of his Master Shri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and the wisdom contained in ancient texts like the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita to give one of the greatest speeches ever delivered.
The Swamiji wove a rich tapestry of Indian culture and heritage, speaking about India’s history of giving refugees a home, of tolerance, acceptance, the idea of the oneness of oneself with the world, and of rejecting hatred and fanaticism. He rejected the idea of humans beings as sinners and instead endorsed the purity and immense power of the human soul, that we are the masters of ourselves: “Come up, O Lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; ye are not matter, ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter” (“Paper on Hinduism.” Chicago Address, Vivekananda Institute of Human Excellence, 2018.)
Though he’d come in as a representative of the Hindu religion, he spoke not just of Hinduism but of the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of all religions, of learning from one another to achieve a higher state of being, saying that “...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.”
In today’s world, as forces trying to sow unrest spread vitriolic hatred; as fanatics, extremists, and “religious leaders” preach the supposed greatness of their own religions or ideas over others’, and for the destruction of those who do not fit into their narrow worldview; as demagogues and charlatans try to create divisions based on religions, races, creeds, and origins, never had Swami Vivekananda’s rousing call of action been more relevant: “...upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance: ‘Help and not Fight,’ ‘Assimilation and not Destruction,’ ‘Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.’”