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The monk who wowed America: What makes Swami Vivekananda’s 1893 Chicago speech so pathbreaking

In the first of six speeches that he made over the course of September, Swami Vivekananda propounded the notion of a universal religion, emphasising the fundamental oneness behind all faiths.

As the world remembers the horrific tragedy that claimed the lives of thousands in the United States on 11 September, 2001, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself took to Twitter to pay homage to the victims, while also recalling another significant milestone that arrived 127 years ago when the venerated monk and Vedantic scholar, Swami Vivekananda, for the very first time, represented India at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. 

Swami Vivekananda

In the first of six speeches that he made over the course of September, Swami Vivekananda propounded the notion of a universal religion, emphasising the fundamental oneness behind all faiths. Decrying mankind's tendency to herald the superiority of one's own religion over others, the saint urged followers of various faiths to hold true to the fundamentals of their own religions, and to let go of 'secondary details.' 

Over a 120 years since Swami Vivekananda took the stage on that fateful day in September, his words continue to wield immense significance, particularly given the religious discord the world remains beset with. Vivekananda's vision was one fashioned on assimilation as a means by which to enhance one's own spiritual growth. Heralding the contributions of men from various religions, he said, 'Every religion has produced men and women of most exalted character. If in the face of this evidence, anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart.' 

In espousing the Vedantic concept of a universal religion, Swami Vivekananda, crucially, also noted that this, by no means, could be the exclusive domain of Hindus. A firm believer in the oneness of mankind, and that a singular divine entity manifested itself in various forms to all beings, he cautioned against religious division, instead calling for the peaceful co-existence of all religions. 'Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism have long poessessed this beautiful Earth. They have filled the Earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilisation and sent whole nations to despair,' he said.  

As we mark the 19th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, one cannot help feel a little disheartened in the knowledge that the world that Swami Vivekananda held in his mind's eye has yet to materialise. Nevertheless, just as the monk himself ended his speech with the character of hope, it would only be fitting to honor his memory by doing the same. Despite the serial clashes of religious nature that continue to plague Indian society, one need only peer into the nation's great and ancient history for plenty of precedent as to what religious acceptance and unity truly looks like.

Gabriel Hernández

23. Pharma Student and Kitchen Lover. Trying to bring the best of pop and indian culture to everyone.+ info

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