How Swami Vivekananda tackled a Christian ploy
at World Parliament of Religions
Asim Kumar Mitra
It was a One Man Brigade fighting against the whole of Christian world who were assembled at the war-field called “World’s Parliament of Religions” organised at Chicago, in 1893. The Hindu Monk of India, Swami Vivekananda had chosen to fight out his goal all alone, although the goal which he wanted to attain was meant for the benefit of all santans of Bharatmata. It was a great decision Swamiji took before he started for America. What was the reason behind that? As an wandering monk Swamiji travelled whole of Bharatvarsha. He saw the abject poverty of people, endless superstitions among them, illiteracy, untouchables etc. had made the society crippled. Subjugation under the British rule was a compelling factor for all these curses.
During his travelling as Parivrajaka he could realise another great truth that Bharat is a land of religion. The people living here do all their work in the name of Dharma—even the thieves or dacoits used to offer Puja to Maa Kali or other Devta to get their blessings for getting success in their mission. At the end of his journey as Parivrajaka when Swamiji sat down on the last tip of land facing the temple of Kanyakumari, he ‘hit upon a new idea’. What was that?
By the time Swamiji arrived at the World’s Parliament of Religions he was convinced that political freedom would not take our motherland to the cherished goal, instead if he could establish the supremacy of Hindu Dharma at that Parliament, then no power on earth can stop Bharatmata to be seated on the top of the World. Because, basically Bharat is a land of religion. Nevertheless people congregated at the Parliament of Religions had jeered at Swamiji who was representing Hindu Dharma, saying: Here comes Swami Vivekananda representing a religion which has been cremated five thousand years ago. So, not a single person in this Parliament is ready to listen to his sermons let alone the establishment of supremacy of Hinduism. It is now everybody’s knowledge that how the people of America and Europe had became mad after Swamiji when he finished his speeches at the Parliament.
A pertinent question, in this connection, was put forward at that time: Why America put up such a huge and gorgeous show on earth? What was the motive? Definitely, they were not in a mood to provide Swamiji a stage to outwit everybody and come out with flying colours. The answer was also available at that time. America wanted to attain the position of supremacy as a world power over the other world powers. The sense of America’s pre-eminent position as a World Power, born of the tremendous progress made by the nation in science and technology and the phenomenal increase of national wealth, induced Americans to think of a befitting celebration. There was another background for such a grand celebration.
The first of the kind was the great exhibition held in Hyde Park, London in 1851 in celebration of Queen Victoria’s twenty-fifth regional year (the Silver Jubilee) which was visited over by six million people. In those days France was also considered to be one of the great powers of the world. After the British show at Hyde Park, London in 1851, France was planning to organise one such grand exhibition. By the time building of the Eiffel Tower was already planned and the authority of France was toying with the idea that they would put up such a huge exhibition so that people of the world would know that France was not lagging behind. The Paris Exhibition of 1889 which was visited over by 32 million people and cost over 144 million francs vastly outdid the British show—the Eiffel Tower, the tallest structure in the world, being here first opened to public view on the occasion.
The Columbian Exposition and World’s Fair, intended by the richest nation on earth to surpass anything of the kind ever seen on any land in the history of the world, did so in every sense—not only in the one in which its organisers had conceived it in a sense that they had not and perhaps never could have conceived. They decided to have twenty congresses embracing such things as woman’s progress, the public press, medicine and surgery, temperance, commerce and finance, music, government and law reform, economic science, Sunday rest—and also religion.
Once religion was admitted, Mr. Bonney had a brain wave; he conceived of a World’s Parliament of Religions, in which the representatives’ of the principal religions of the world might be brought together. But there was an ill motive behind it which was equally shameful. And this was exposed by the Baltimore Sun of October 11, 1894 ran an article which was headlined: “The Christian Religion—President Bonney says that The Parliament of Religions Will Make it Supreme”. It may be mentioned here that Mr. Bonney, whom Swamiji admired so much, seems to have later regretted his dream of religious fraternity.
However lofty may have been President Bonney’s own view of the purpose of the Parliament, many of the organisers intended it to be (to use Swamiji’s words) “a heathen show”, and confidently expected that it would end in the triumphant recognition of Christianity as the best religion of the world—The highest that he could rise as a broad-minded Christian is contained in the following words that he wrote on the subject. “Though light has no fellowship with darkness, light does have fellowship with twilight. God has not left himself without witness, and those who have the full light of the Cross should bear brotherly hearts toward all who grope in a dimmer illumination”.
Some Christian clericals went further and refused to participate in the Parliament on one plea or another. The Baptists and the Christian Endeavour Society boycotted it and every other concern of the World’s Fair, on the ground that the Fair was being kept open on Sundays in flagrant violation of the rules of the Sabbath. Russia refused to send a representative, though Prince Wolkonsky who, by the way, later became a great admirer of Swamiji, unofficially represented the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Anglican Church rejected the invitation to send a delegate and the Archbishop of Canterbury left Dr. Barrows in no doubt as to the real reason of the decision. “The difficulties which I myself feel”, wrote he, “are not questions of distance and convenience, but rest on the fact that the Christian religion is the one religion I do not understand how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other included members and the purity of their position and claims”.
It may be mentioned, however, that in spite of the Archbishop’s ‘denunciation’ of the Parliament, Dr Alfred W Momerie of London, who was a well-known worker amongst the poor of London, and as Swamiji described him, was “a very sweet man”, attended the Parliament.
The murmuring protestation of his faith in the forthcoming triumph of truth (Christianity) that was uttered by Dr Barrows may have wounded in the ears of those who attended the Parliament as a gentle coo as compared with the roar that the Archbishop rent the air with and the growls that followed from the ministers at Hongkong and elsewhere. (The Hongkong clergyman accused Dr Barrows of “planning treason against Christ” and thereby jeopardising his soul.)
One may even find a sort of a defence for the line Dr Barrows took up on the eve of the Parliament: he had taken upon his shoulders a heavy and as it seemed, a hazardous job and he had to please many people if he wanted successfully to see it through. Swami Vivekananda praised him highly: “It was the great courage, untiring industry, unruffled patience and never failing courtesy of Dr Barrows that made the Parliament a grand success”.
But even if it was a mask that he was putting on before and during the Parliament days, it completely fell off afterwards. All the fame that he had earned for successfully piloting the Parliament was lost, so far as India was concerned, when, in 1897, he came to preach his faith in India. Swami Vivekananda, who had returned to India only a few days earlier, did everything to smooth his path and wrote a letter containing a warm encomium (as quoted above) which was published in the Indian Mirror. But he preached “the most bigoted Christianity, with the result that nobody listened to him” (Swamiji’s letter to Mary Hale dated 28 April 1897).
Returning to America, a very disappointed and angry man, Dr Barrows made some wild accusations against Swamiji.
(This article is based on the facts provided in “A Comprehensive Biography of Swami Vivekananda” written by Shailendranath Dhar. This is a Vivekananda Kendra Publication.)