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Vivekananda Centenary Celebrations in the U.S, in Retrospect -- S. J.

In connection with the centenary of Swami Vivekananda's appearance at the World's Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893, I was in the U. S. A. (from 1st August 1993) for nearly six months and returned on the 17th January 1994, after a tour in the East Coast. The following are a few excerpts from my notes on the trip. The focus here is mainly on the centenary celebrations in which I participated:

Major Programs
The major programs I attended were the Vivekananda Centenary Celebrations at Washington and Chicago. I also attended the Parliament of the World's Religions held at the Palmer House Hilton at Chicago.

Hinduism Today (North America Edition, October and November 1993 issues) published a faithful account of those programs. Let me therefore begin with a few lines therefrom to highlight the significance and uniqueness of the historic occasion:

'Global Vision 2000' Conference
The Largest U. S. A. gathering of Swamis highlighted the three-day 'Global Vision 2000' conference at Washington D. C. (August 6-8) where 10,000 rallied to honour Swami Vivekananda and mark the 100th anniversary of his arrival in America. Speakers boldly proclaimed that the spiritual concepts propounded by Swami Vivekananda in the last century contain the solutions to the problems of the next. There were pressing appeals for spreading the ancient Hindu values, beginning with vasudhaiva kutumbakam -- 'the world is one family' -- the message that Swami Vivekananda dilated upon at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.

As an event, 'Global Vision 2000' was more than a success -- double the number of expected three-day participants (4000 in all) showed up, overwhelming the staff. Despite some very difficult logistics, including the feeding of unexpected large numbers of people, the conference fulfilled all its planned objectives: to bring together a large gathering of Hindus for spiritual celebration of Swami Vivekananda's arrival in the West; to involve the youths in substantial numbers; and to bring Eastern and Western philosophers together to examine the ideal of the oneness of all creation.

Parliament of the World's Religions
One hundred years ago (in 1893), while hosting the World's Columbian Exhibition, celebrating the 400th year of Columbus' discovery of the America, Chicago also became the home of the first-ever interfaith gathering. Roaring like a lion at that first assembly of all faiths, Swami Vivekananda overawed the audience with his knowledge, his love of Hinduism and its Olympian tolerance. By his eloquent depiction of the Hindu faith, it saw in this thirty-year-old monk the highest expression of Hindu intuitive wisdom. One hundred years later, at the second Parliament of the World's Religions held from August 28th to September 5th in Chicago, 600 world spiritual leaders and dignitaries, explored the hope of realizing interfaith harmony.

That single saffron robe of 1893 had turned to hundreds in 1993. A few eastern souls had turned to thousands. There, in the crowded hall, mingling with indigenous American Indians, jostling shoulder-to-shoulder with Christian and Jewish leaders, were the new-comers. The Jains were there, along with the Sikhs, the Buddhists and the Hindus. There were also a few Mohammedans.

The Parliament was a clinching proof of the emerging multiracial society in America. No one could ignore the Indian presence. It was a kind of Chicago Kumbha Mela.

There were the seminars, panels, lectures, inspirational readings and discourses on all spiritual traditions. Much was said of interfaith harmony and understanding. There was genuine sharing and a true tolerance that transcended the reluctant toleration of a century ago. In essence, the Parliament revolved around 600 world spiritual leaders and dignitaries gathered to share their faith with over 6,500 participants. Clearly it had a message of profound interest to the world at large. Besides heavy North American representation, participants also came from every continent, and carried the message when they went back home.

At the Art Institute of Chicago
About a thousand devotees participated in the 100th anniversary celebration (11th September 1993) to commemorate Swami Vivekananda's famous 'Chicago Address'. The function, sponsored by the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago and the Consul General of India, was held at the Art Institute of Chicago -- the very place where the Swamiji had made history 100 years ago. I had a rare privilege to pay a reverential homage to the great Swamiji on that day in the Art Institute.

The Hindu Representative at the Parliament
It was the first day of the Parliament and the opening session was about to commence. The Grand ballroom of the Palmer House Hilton was jam-packed with the delegates from all over the world. The representatives of the leading faiths were present on the platform. When the session started, the representatives of different faiths were called one by one, and they made their invocation speeches. The Hindu representative fared excellently well, as did Swami Vivekananda himself 100 years ago in the opening session of the Parliament. Sant Keshavadas made an extempore, inspiring speech, paying rich tributes to the hallowed memory of Swami Vivekananda who made history in the Parliament of Religions a century ago. The moment Sant Keshavadas reminded the audience about that great Hindu Monk of India and his historic 'Chicago Address' in 1893, there was a loud and prolonged applause from the audience at the Grand ballroom. It appeared as if the scene of the first day of the 1893 Parliament at the Art Institute of Chicago was re-enacted at the Palmer House Hilton in 1993! Indeed Sant Keshavadas echoed in his own inimitable style the grand message of the Sanatana Dharma contained in the famous 'Chicago Address' of Swami Vivekananda.

Incidentally, what did Swami Vivekananda proclaim 100 years ago in the World's Parliament of Religions at Chicago? Note his impassioned plea: "The Christian is not to become a Hindu or Buddhist, nor is a Buddhist or a Hindu 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. If the Parliament has shown anything to the world, it is this: It has proved to the world 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. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart".

In contrast to this statement of Swami Vivekananda, note the following report from The New York Times dated 30th August 1993: "...But even within the religious world, there is disagreement about the Parliament's merits. The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, is among groups that declined to send a representative. Many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians believe that such gatherings are at best a distraction from spreading the Gospel and at worst a confusing compromise of their belief that Christianity is the only way to salvation."

'The Star of the 1893 Assembly'
Recalling the World's Parliament of Religions held at Chicago 100 years ago and the 'star of the 1893 assembly', Swami Vivekananda, and the impact of his dynamic spiritual message on contemporary America, The New York Times dated 30th August, 1993, stated:

"This meeting is the centennial of the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions, held on the site of what is now the Art Institute of Chicago, was a landmark in American religious history.... The star of the 1893 assembly was Swami Vivekananda, a thirty-year-old spokesman for Hinduism.

" 'Do not care for dogmas, or sects....' he preached. 'They count for little compared with the essence of existence in each man, which is spirituality.' It was a message that struck chords in an America where school children encountered similar thoughts in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Jefferson.

"Swami Vivekananda denounced the sectarianism that 'has filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood,' and he called for 'the death-knell of all fanaticism.' "

Evidently, Peter Steinfels, the reporter of The New York Times quoted above, realized the relevance and significance of Swami Vivekananda and his message to the West, nay, to mankind. All kudos to Peter Steinfels!

A Holy Mother at the Parliament
On one of the days of the Parliament at Chicago, Mata Amritanandamayi, the renowned saint from Kerala, kept the audience spellbound for about an hour, with her spiritual discourse. She spoke in the Grand ballroom of the Palmer House Hilton, where I was present among the audience. In consonance with the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, she emphasized spirituality and spiritual experience as the essence of religion. Said she, inter alia: "Religion leads us to know we are the all-powerful God. God is in us all. He is like the space. Space is everywhere. Suppose we build a house, space existed before the house came into being, and after the house is demolished the space is unchanged. God is like that, everywhere and unchanged. God is all-pervasive, and is the Light of Consciousness within us. Heaven and hell are created by the mind. Rising in love is religion." No sooner did she finish her discourse than the audience surged towards her. She received and blessed them affectionately.

I had visited her Ashram in Kerala, about a decade ago (in 1984, vide my book: Beloved Mother -- Amritanandamayi). So it was a pleasant surprise to her when I met her at the Grand ballroom of the Palmer House Hilton at Chicago and presented to her a copy of the International Edition of my book on Swami Vivekananda.

In less than a decade, her divine mission has flourished phenomenally, both in India and abroad. She is today a great solace to the careworn and heavy-laden humanity. The enlightened saints are verily the salt of the earth.

Pilgrimage in Swamiji's Footsteps: Chicago
In the context of the Vivekananda Centenary Celebrations, in the month of September 1993, the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago arranged for the devotees a pilgrimage to various places connected with Swami Vivekananda at Chicago. I too joined the band of enthusiastic devotees and had the privilege of visiting the places intimately connected with Swamiji during his stay at Chicago, a century ago. This was a cherished wish of mine even before I left for the U. S. A. and now it was amply fulfilled.

Other than the Art Institute of Chicago (the venue of the Parliament of Religions a hundred years ago, where Swamiji delivered the historic 'Chicago Address'), the places connected with Swamiji we visited were: The Hale House, John B. Lyons House, Fine Arts Building, Lincoln Park near Dearborn Street, and the house at 1210 N. Astor Street.

It is opposite to the Hale House, across the street, that Swamiji sat down exhausted after his long walk from the Railway Station (September 10, 1893), where Mrs. Hale welcomed him.

At John B. Lyons house, the Lyons family hosted Swamiji throughout the Parliament and often afterwards at the then 262 Michigan Avenue.

At the Fine Arts Building, Swamiji gave several classes in the studios of Florence Adams -- a noted devotee and friend.

At the entrance of Lincoln Park near Dearborn Street, Swamiji often used to sit, while staying with the Hales. One mother impressed by his imposing appearance asked if she could leave her six-years-old child in his charge while she was shopping; since he agreed, she did so several times. Later, that child -- Agnes Ewing -- became a student of Swami Akhilananda.

From 1897, the house at 1210 N. Astor Street was the residence of the Hale family. Here Swamiji stayed during his last two Chicago visits.

The Programme I missed
The Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre of New York also organized a three-day Vivekananda Centennial Celebrations at New York (November 5-7, 1993). One of the programs was held at the United Nations Auditorium. It was presented in co-operation with the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations, and more than a dozen distinguished participants paid rich tributes to the hallowed memory of the Swamiji. Unfortunately, I missed the entire programme.

Excellent Facilities for Students
My stay for a fortnight at the International House located in the Hyde Park by the campus of the University of Chicago was providential. I was staying at Bolingbrook, which was far away from downtown Chicago where the Parliament of Religions was to be held at the Palmer House Hilton.

Dr. Shyam L. Bhatia (a Ramakrishna-Vivekananda devotee residing in Hyde Park) whom I had met in the College of DuPage campus, Glen Ellyn, in the second week of August, was kind enough to introduce me to the International House to which I shifted, thus being able to attend the week-long Parliament punctually. The House is about fifteen minutes away from the downtown by commuter trains, which stop one block away.

An autonomous department of the University of Chicago and a self-supporting educational residence for students from around the world, the International House was founded in 1932 through a munificent gift from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. -- son of the renowned philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) who had met Swami Vivekananda in Chicago, in 1894 (and about which I have incorporated a write-up in my book on Swami Vivekananda) the International House is a great boon to the international students and scholars. They are provided with all amenities for a comfortable stay, besides facilities for their social and cultural development. Verily, the International House symbolizes Rockefeller's love for students and his patronage to the cause of higher education.

Need of the Hour: A Coming Together of the East and the West
In conclusion, some observations: At the zenith of material prosperity and technological mastery, a 'moral vacuum' is felt in the hectic American life even as one finds a chronic 'material vacuum' (abject poverty and squalor) in India despite its lofty spiritual inheritance. This imbalance can go if only India and America join hands. America needs India as much as India needs America. Swami Vivekananda is the harbinger of such a commingling of the East and the West. "His teachings set in motion those forces, which could eventually bring to the Western civilization the needed qualitative changes. So he preached Vedanta and Yoga in the West, and at home emphasized the need for useful and dynamic activity, the education of the Indian masses and the service of the poor and the downtrodden without disturbing their faith and tradition".

We are privileged to be living at the time of the centenary of Swami Vivekananda's visit to America and his historic appearance at thee World's Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. This centenary is a unique opportunity to spread his message, which is powerful enough to influence the whole mankind in bringing about a radical spiritual revolution in the world.

Widening the Spiritual Perspective of Humanity
The main concern of the world today is peace and harmony. The path that the world has until now traversed in pursuit of technological mastery, has imperiled peace. If peace and harmony are to rise and reign in the hearts and minds of human beings all over the world, they should have an opportunity to be exposed to the revealing insights of spirituality which Swami Vivekananda has bequeathed to humanity. Hence an earnest and vigorous propagation of his spiritual teachings is the most important means of serving that divine mission. The more the life and teachings of the great Swamiji are made known, the more will the spiritual perspective of humanity be widened, thereby paving the way for enduring world peace everyone is hankering for.

-- 100 years later
Bansi Pandit
(In "Weekly Spotlight", Chicago, August 27, 1993)

Glen Ellyn, IL: "In a world that is in constant pursuit of material happiness, our young men and women are tending to become hedonistic, thereby losing the true perspective of life," says Swami Jyotirmayananda of Madras, India, who has arrived in Chicago to attend the forthcoming World's Parliament of Religions. In his recently published book "Vivekananda -- A Comprehensive Study", Jyotirmayananda clearly brings home the universal message of oneness Swami Vivekananda delivered to the World's Parliament of Religions, hundred years ago. This book carries Vivekananda's message of hope for an inner transformation, resulting in a spiritually oriented 'character efficiency' to go hand-in-hand with the present-day technologically oriented 'external productive efficiency,' to pave the way for universal peace and harmony.

According to Swami Jyotirmayananda, the path that the world has until now traversed in pursuit of technological mastery has imperiled peace and environment and failed to provide prosperity and equality for all people of the world. Hosts of problems are cropping up, bringing in its train a lot of tension, anxiety, worries and frustration. Beset with psychological, social, economic, ethnic, political and environmental problems, which defy solution, the people of today's world are becoming the beasts of burden. Can anybody help and rescue those who are constantly being buffeted by these and the other problems? Can they themselves solve their problems by dint of their self-effort? Or can their Governments or social organizations, or the mighty world organization -- the United Nations -- find a permanent solution for today's human crisis? The answer is emphatically negative. At best they can find some temporary remedies which can act as just palliatives. In any case it is certain that none of them can create in all the people of the world a total awareness for higher and enduring values, the inculcation of which alone can regenerate human life and reform the character. No amount of state authority can bring an essential change in human nature. "Neither science nor politics can give man perfect peace and happiness. The ills of life cannot be cured by political, social or other mechanical remedies which human beings are constantly attempting and which have always failed."

Nevertheless, there is an abiding solution for all human problems. Swami Vivekananda, the prophet of spirituality, whose mission was to make human life sublime and fruitful, emphatically affirms the fact that the world will change when the human beings, which constitute it, change from within. The 'inner man' is to be set right first and the externals will take care of themselves. So the solution of problems which Vivekananda offers is not by external means, though these also have to be used, but essentially by an inner change, a complete transformation of man's consciousness and nature. "Unless the man's psyche changes, the society cannot by deeply and permanently changed. The various social, political, and economic problems of today's world are only the outward symptoms of an inner psychological malaise. So it is the spiritual awareness alone that generates the real peace and happiness, and love and unity in the world".

Swami Vivekananda, therefore, advocates self-culture and self-transformation, and teaches the technique of change within. He loves to call this process as "Man-making". This is the panacea of all the maladies of today's world. Although modern technology and science has placed enormous power at the disposal of man, he cannot use this power for the peace and prosperity of the human race, until his own mind is cultured. Excess of knowledge and power, without holiness, can easily make human beings devils, warns Swami Vivekananda. "We must progress materially and spiritually, side by side. Material prosperity should not be at the expense of spiritual advancement. They should go together. Then only we can have integral evolution. Then and then alone we can expect to have a socially more useful and individually peaceful and spiritually enlightened life," says Swami Jyotirmayananda.