He cut an exotic figure, the turbaned swami with the princely bearing. "Sister's and brothers of America!" the orange-clad monk began his address to the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893. Instantly the crowd of over seven thousand people jumped to their feet for a two minute standing ovation.
The swami went on to speak about his favorite theme, the unity of world religions. "As the different streams all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord," he quoted from Hindu scriptures, "the different paths which men take ... crooked or straight, all lead to Thee!"
"After hearing him," a reporter for the New York Herald wrote, "we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation."
Over the next few days, The World Congress of Religions will bring spiritual leaders and academics from around the globe to Washington, D.C. to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. It will be a chance to reassess the influence of one of the seminal figures of modern India.
That influence is both greater than anyone could have anticipated back at the end of the 19th century, and also less than the swami might have hoped for. Less than he would have hoped, because more than 100 years after Vivekananda proclaimed the oneness of the world's great faiths, religious discord is on the rise in the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe.
Vivekananda would have been saddened, but not surprised. "No other human motive had deluged the world with blood so much as religion," he ruefully observed, then added, "at the same time, nothing has brought into existence so many hospitals and asylums for the poor. ... Nothing makes us so cruel as religion, and nothing makes us so tender as religion."
A paradox that Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and the other new atheists seem to have missed!
I was introduced to Swami Vivekananda during a five year stay in India in the 1970s and '80s. The Swami's picture was everywhere -- on postage stamps and on calendar images hung in chai shops side by side with Hindu deities and Bollywood stars. Vivekananda is beloved in India not just for his spiritual teaching, but for being a patron saint of India's independence movement, which would flare up less than two decades after his untimely death at the age of 40. No less a luminary than Mahatma Gandhi credited the charismatic swami with inspiring his life's work. In a nation emasculated by over two centuries of British colonial rule, Swami Vivekananda taught Indians to have pride in their ancient traditions, and faith in what he foresaw as their bright future.
With India's economy now booming, this prophecy is rapidly coming true. But Vivekananda had an even more exalted notion of his country's role than becoming a global economic superpower. He was convinced that India was destined to be the guru to the world.
"Spirituality must conquer the West," he declared. And he called Hinduism "the mother of all religions," not because he believed that its doctrine alone is right, but on the contrary, because it makes no such exclusive claims. "India alone was to be, of all lands, the land of toleration," Vivekananda remarked. "We accept all religions as true."
An astonishing claim given the profusion of dogmas, rites and practices of the world's faiths. But underneath these surface differences, Swami Vivekananda saw the universal impulse to commune with the Most High. All religions conceive a Divine Creative Principle at the root of things, although they call it by different names he said. They unanimously testify that one can commune with this Divinity through prayer and meditation. And the broad ethical principles to love and to forgive, to be generous and kind are also shared by all faiths.
So given their common impulse, similar methods and shared aims, why do religions clash? Vivekananda answered that they clash because they have lost sight of their own deeper purpose -- which is returning us to ourselves. For Swami Vivekananda religion was less about worshipping a God "out there" than recovering a sense of our own innate divinity, which Christian's call "the Christ within."
"Never forget the glory of human nature. We are the greatest God that ever was or will be. Christ and Buddhas are but waves on the boundless ocean which I am. Bow down to nothing but your own higher Self."
These words may sound outrageous to many orthodox believers, even today when these sentiments have been echoed by thinkers like Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, Eckhart Tolle and other popularizers of Eastern thought. But Swami Vivekananda was not a budding new ager. His teachings were based on the ancient Hindu philosophical doctrine called Vedanta, which holds that there is a spark within all beings of the creative power which forged the universe. Religions, in the Vedantic understanding, are so many different languages for awakening us to the intuition of this Core Self.
Granted, the idea that religions are parallel paths toward the same goal seems to fly in the face of what we see around us: a world of warring creeds, each one proclaiming that its way alone is true. I recently came across an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Boston University religion scholar Stephen Prothero. Prothero argues that those who preach the oneness of religion are being disrespectful of the profound, and in his view irreconcilable, differences between religious traditions. He says that we are better served if we understand how these differences have led to conflict, rather than paper them over with a naive notion about the unity of the world's great faiths. I used to get the same arguments from my comparative religion professor, Conrad Hyers at Beloit College, who would joke that, if it were true that all religions were teaching the same thing, he would be out of a job.
These professors are right of course: religions differ. And it certainly is a fact that these doctrinal differences have been a bone of often violent contention throughout human history. But they miss Vivekananda's deeper point that dwelling on the differences rather than on the far more essential common ground between creeds is a prescription for perpetuating these age old conflicts rather than resolving them.
Mystics have always observed that the intellect sees divisions whereas the soul perceives the underlying unity of existence. Religion, for mystics like Swami Vivekananda, is the art of returning human consciousness from fragmentation to unity. He would have disagreed with scholars like Prothero who put their emphasis on the differences between faiths. Vivekananda believed that we do religion a service rather than an offense when we remind it of its mission to heal the divisions between us and within us.
Many of course need no reminding. While many have used their religion as a pretext for acts of hatred and intolerance, this distortion of the religious spirit should not blind us to the untold millions who serve in soup kitchens in the basements of churches, synagogue and mosques, who are motivated by their religious commitment to stand for social justice and to reach out to neighbors who are in trouble.
The wrong kind of religion convinces its followers that they alone possess the key to Truth. The right kind, according to Vivekananda, helps to make one more compassionate, humbler in the face of the Great Mystery, and tolerant of inevitable human differences. The fact that so many believers (and nonbelievers alike) fail to live up to these exalted ideals should not be allowed to overshadow the liberating message of Oneness which is at the heart of faith.
"Truth is one, the wise call it by many names," Swami Vivekananda proclaimed in Chicago. More than 100 years later, this is a lesson that we still need to learn.