America’s Parliaments of Religions, 1893 and 1993

2. The Parliaments of Religions in Chicago, 1893 and 1993; Vivekananda’s resounding voice at the first, the subtle Catholic presence at the second (Joseph cardinal Bernardin and the Benedictines). Gurus on the lecture circuit.

When we realize how important newly-translated Hindu texts (Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads) were for the Transcendentalists of Concord, MA, we can understand Swami Vivekananda’s striking success in Chicago, at the 1893 Parliament of Religions (this was in fact an event within the context of the Columbian Exposition, celebrating the first century of the United States). America was ready for the Swami, and surprisingly enough, so was the Church. The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago was not officially represented, and diocesan authorities even considered participation by Catholics to be illicit (as did the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking for Anglicans). However, the archbishop of Baltimore (remember that this was the first Catholic diocese in the U.S.A.) gave permission to a priest who was eager to attend, as if heading into a sort of mission territory. Many other Christian participants had this same missionary purpose in mind.

Vivekananda’s opening phrase at the Parliament was: “Sisters and Brothers of America…” He was interrupted by several minutes of a standing ovation. Note the word order: “Sisters” first. This feminist theme appeared again in another of his talks. He also established a parallel between India’s culture as spiritual and America’s as scientific and efficient: this was his way of affirming the complementarity of East and West. We could suppose that he would not have objected to the current, official stance of Catholic exponents, to the effect that the other religions are not to be considered complementary to Christianity. For his part, Vivekananda affirmed the elder status of Hinduism among the religions, as well as the value of Vedantic thought as the universal and abiding truth underlying all religions, Christianity included. For Swami V, Christianity was true insofar as it could be understood in Vedic and Vedantic terms. So V was not in any way a pluralist, in the sense we use the word today. He firmly believed in his Sanatana Dharma, to which all religions were related, without being complementary to it.

Vivekananda, by adopting the language of Indian non-dualist philosophy (Advaita Vedanta), made available an academically respectable framework for America’s Vedic spirit. Remember: Swami V expressed something that was exotic for Americans, but not wholly alien; in fact, you could read him in the light of Emerson & Co., and conclude that the Transcendentalists actually influenced the swami’s way of speaking, if not the substance of his thought.

About Chicago 1993: I was there; so were Hans Küng and Cardinal Bernardin. My fellow Benedictines were behind the scenes on the organizing committee, and one of the lesser presentations offered at the Parliament was a memorial to the recently-deceased Dom Bede Griffiths, of our Ashram in South India. Of course, all religious bodies were represented, in one way or another, in the various events of those days, and the concluding session, in a vast outdoor amphitheater, had the Dalai Lama as the keynote speaker, and Cardinal Bernardin was on the stage with representatives of many other religious bodies.

Read the Wikipedia article on Parliament_of_World_Religions, and follow the links therein.

About ashramdiary

Thomas Matus, who blogs this Ashram Diary, was born 1940 in Hollywood, California. Academics: A.B. in music from Occidental College (Los Angeles); S.T.L. in ecumenical theology from Athenaeum Anselmianum (Rome, Italy); Ph.D. in comparative mysticism from Fordham University (New York). Initiated into Kriya Yoga (by direct disciples of Paramahansa Yogananda) in 1958. Became a Catholic in 1960 and entered New Camaldoli Hermitage (Big Sur, California) as a novice monk in 1962. Lived for more than 30 years at the Monastery of Camaldoli in Italy. Traveled to India some 20 times; made frequent retreats at Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) in southern India. Was in Brazil, off and on, from 1999 to 2006. Now back in California, he lives at the Hermitage in Big Sur and Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley, California. See:
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