On Monday, September 11, 1893, the first session of the Parliament was opened in the great Hall of Columbus, where were seated repres
entatives of the religious beliefs of twelve hundred millions of the human race. In the centre sat Cardinal Gibbons, the highest prelate of the Roman Catholic Church on the Western Continent. On the right and left of him were gathered the Oriental delegates—Pratap Chandra Majumdar of Bengal and Nagarkar of Bombay who were representatives of the Brahmo Samaj; Dharmapala who represented the Buddhists of Ceylon; Gandhi (a distant relation of Mahatma Gandhi) representing the Jains, and Mr. Chakravarty representing Theosophy with Mrs. Annie Besant. Among them was also seated Swami Vivekananda who, with his noble bearing, bright countenance and gorgeous apparel, drew the attention of the assembled thousands and soon became the cynosure of all eyes. It was the first time that he had to speak before such an august assembly; and as the delegates, presented one by one, had to announce themselves in public in brief speeches, the Swami let his turn go by hour after hour until the end of the day.
At length, in the late afternoon, when the Chairman insisted, the Swami rose and bowed down to Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning. His face glowed like fire. His eyes surveyed in a sweep the huge assembly before him. When he opened his lips, his speech was like a tongue of flame. Hardly had he pronounced the very simple
opening words, 'Sisters and Brothers of America', when hundreds rose to their feet with deafening shouts of applause. The Parliament had gone mad—everyone cheering the Swami
enthusiastically. For two minutes he attempted to speak, but the wave of wild enthusiasm created by this significant form of address prevented it. He was certainly the first to cast off the formalism of the Congress and speak to the audience in the language for which they were waiting. When silence was restored, the Swami greeted the youngest of the nations in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world—the Vedic order of Sannyasins, and presented Hinduism as the mother of religions —a religion which had taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. He quoted two beautiful, illustrative passages taken from the scriptures of Hinduism:
'As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they may appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.'
'Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to Me.'
It was only a short speech, but its spirit of universality, its fundamental earnestness and broadmindedness completely captivated the whole assembly. There were other Hindu delegates who stood for societies or churches or sects, but the Swami, who belonged to no sect but rather to India as a whole, proclaimed the universality of religious truths and the sameness of the Goal of all religious realizations. In the course of his illuminating addresses during the sessions of the Parliament, the Swami placed before the distinguished audience the cardinal truths of Vedanta, the universal religion of humanity.
He said: 'If there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in place or time; which will be infinite, like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and Christ, on saint and sinners alike; which will not be Brahminic or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its catholicity will find a place for every human being, from the lowest grovelling savage not far removed from the brute to the highest man towering by the virtues of his head and heart almost above humanity. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be centred in aiding humanity to realize its own true, divine nature. Offer such a religion and all the nations will follow you.? The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist 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.'
The Parliament of Religions, he concluded, had shown to the world that holiness, purity, and charity were not the exclusive possession of any church in the world and that every system had produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreamt of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of others, he was to be pitied and told that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written, in spite of resistance: 'Help and not fight,' 'Assimilation and not Destruction', 'Harmony and Peace and not Dissension'.
The effect of these mighty words was tremendous. Over the heads of the official representatives of the Parliament they were addressed to a wider public, and Swami Vivek-ananda at once became the most celebrated personality of the Parliament. The American press rang with his fame. The best known and most conservative of the metropolitan newspapers proclaimed him a Prophet and a Seer. The New York Herald referred to him as 'undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament of Religions', and added, 'After hearing him we feel how foolish it is to send missionaries to this learned nation.'
The news of Swami Vivekananda's unparalleled success soon poured into India as well. Indian journals and magazines—from Madras to Almora, from Calcutta to Bombay—were filled with the American reports of his triumph at the Parliament. The happiness of the monks of the Ramakrishna Order at Baranagore knew no bounds when they came to learn that it was their beloved leader who had taken the New World by storm. The citizens of Calcutta organized a great representative meeting in the Town Hall to thank the Swami and the American people. The name Vivekananda rang with acclaim throughout the length and breadth of Hindusthan. Everywhere he was recognized as the man who had come to fulfil a great need. The unknown monk without titles and ties blossomed into a world-figure and became the man of the hour.
But in the midst of this recognition of his genius, universal applause, and immense popularity, the Swami was never found for a moment forgetful of his duties to the sunken masses of India. On the very day of his triumph when he was invited by a man of great wealth and distinction to his home and lodged in a princely room fitted with luxury beyond anything he could conceive, instead of feeling happy in this splendid environment he was miserable. He could not sleep, pondering, in contrast, over India's plight. The bed of down became to him a bed of thorns. He rolled down on the empty floor and in agony of his heart cried, 'O Mother, what do I care for name and fame when my motherland remains sunk in utmost poverty? Who will raise the masses in India? Who will give them bread? Show me, O Mother, how I can help them.' He wrote inspiring letters to his disciples and admirers in India to stimulate their hearts into activity and a high pitch of patriotic fervour. 'Gird up your loins, my boys,' he once wrote, 'I am called by the Lord for this. The hope lies in you—in the meek, the lowly, but the faithful. Feel for the miserable and look up for help—it shall come. With a bleeding heart I have crossed half the world to this strange land seeking for help. The Lord will help me. I may perish of cold and hunger in this land, but I bequeath to you, young men, this sympathy, this struggle for the poor, the ignorant, the oppressed. Go down on your faces before Him and make a great sacrifice, the sacrifice of a whole life for them—these three hundred millions, going down and down every day. Glory unto the Lord, we will succeed. Hundreds will fall in the struggle— hundreds will be ready to take it up. Life is nothing, death is nothing. Glory unto the Lord—march on, the Lord is our General. Do not look back to see who falls—forward, onward!'
The Swami never forgot in the midst of luxury the primary idea of his mission—to save his people, to mobilize them to help him in his task by widening his appeal until it became the cause of the people, the cause of the poor and the oppressed of the whole world.
In order to serve the cause of his motherland he accepted the offer of a lecture bureau for a tour of the United States. In the course of this apostolic campaign in America he began to tell of the glories of India and the greatness of Indian culture and spirituality.