4. THE MIDWESTERN TOUR
The first definite knowledge we have of the date on which Swamiji left Illinois to widen his field of activity is contained in a letter which he wrote to Mrs. Tannatt Woods on November 19, 1893. This letter was included in the first chapter of this book, and the reader will perhaps remember that Swamiji said in it, “I am starting to-morrow for Madison and Minneapolis.” This departure from Chicago marked the beginning of Swamiji’s famous and important lecture tour of the Midwest and South, which lasted until April of 1894. But although the tour is famous and important. I have been able to gather information about Swamiji’s lectures in only four cities prior to his visit to Detroit in February of 1894. I have found that he visited not only Madison, Wisconsin, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, in November of 1893 but, in the same month, Des Moines, Iowa. These three cities constituted the first listings on his Midwestern itinerary. Another discovery is that Swamiji visited Memphis, Tennessee, in January, 1894. The new information regarding his visits to these towns still leaves a large blank in our knowledge, but I believe it will nevertheless give a more or less representative idea of the tour as a whole.
As seen above, Swamiji left Chicago on November 20 for Madison, a hundred and thirty miles northwest. And, as one learns from the following-somewhat meager report in the Wisconsin State Journal of November 21, it was on the evening of the same day that he lectured there:
GAVE AN INTERESTING LECTURE
The lecture at the Congregational church last night by the celebrated Hindoo monk, Vivekananda, was an extremely interesting one, and contained much of sound
philosophy and good religion. Pagan though he be, Christianity may well follow many or his teachings. His creed is as wide as the universe, taking in all religions, and accepting truth wherever it may be found. Bigotry and superstition and idle ceremony, he declared, have no place in “the religions of India”
From Madison, Swamiji traveled some two hundred and fifty miles farther northwest to Minneapolis, Minnesota, a city with a population of about a hundred and sixty-five thousand and of no little importance in the Midwest. His first lecture there was reported by the Minneapolis Star of November 25:
THE HINDOO RELIGION.
Its Principles and Truths Set Forth in a Clear and Forceful Manner in a Lecture by Swami Vivekananda.
“Brahminism” in all its subtle attraction, because of its embodiment of ancient and truthful principles, was the subject which held an audience in closest attention last evening at the First Unitarian Church, while Swami Vivekananda expounded the Hindoo faith. It was an audience which included thoughtful women and men, for the lecturer had been invited by the “Peripatetics” and among the friends who shared the privilege with them were ministers of varied denominations, as well as students and scholars. Vivekananda is a Brahmin priest, and he occupied the platform in his native garb, with caftan on head, orange colored coat confined at the waist with a red sash, and red nether garments.
He presented his faith in all sincerity, speaking slowly and clearly, convincing his hearers by quietness of speech rather than by rapid action. His words were carefully weighed, and each carried its meaning direct.
He offered the simplest truths of the Hindoo religion, and while he said nothing harsh about Christianity, he touched upon it in such a manner as to place the faith of Brahma before all. The all-pervading thought and leading principle of the Hindoo religion is the inherent divinity of the soul; the soul is perfect, and religion is the manifestation of divinity already existing in man.
The present is merely a line of demarkation between the past and future, and of the two tendencies in man, if the good preponderates he will move to a higher sphere, if the evil has power, he degenerates. These two are continually at work within him ; what elevates him is virtue, that which degenerates is evil.
Kananda will speak at the First Unitarian Church tomorrow morning.
It should perhaps be mentioned here that while Swamijt “had been invited by the ‘Peripatetics,’ ” he nevertheless might at this time have been engaged by a lecture bureau ; for it is a function of lecture bureaus to arrange precisely such engagements. On the other hand, he may still have been on his own. The next Minneapolis report appeared on the front page of the Minneapolis Journal of November 27:
AN ORIENTAL VIEW
Livami Vivekananda Addresses a Minneapolis Audience.
Mercenaries in Religion
In this Way He Characterizes the Western Nations – He Tells About the Religions of India.
The Unitarian church was crowded yesterday morning by an audience anxious to learn something of eastern religious thought as outlined by Swami Vivekananda, a Brahmin priest, who was prominent in the Parliament of Religions at Chicago last summer. The distinguished representative of the Brahmin faith was brought to Minneapolis by the Peripatetic Club, and he addressed that body last Friday evening. He
was induced to remain until this weex, in order that he might deliver the address yesterday.
Vivekananda is a typical Uindeu, dark-skinned, well rounded features, and a flashing eye that gives evidence of a quick intellect. He appeared in his picturesque native dress. He occupied the platform with Dr. H. M. Simmons, the pastor, the opening prayer was sung, Vivekanandai following the lines closely, and then Dr. Simmons read from Paul’s lesson on faith, hope and charity, and “the greatest of these is charity” supplementing that reading by a selection from the Brahmin scripture which teaches the same lesson, and also a selection from the Moslem faith, and poems from the Hindu literature, all of which are in harmony with Paul’s utterances.
After a second hymn Swami Vivekanda was introduced. He stepped to the edge of the platform and at once had his audience interested by the recital of a Hindu story. He said in excellent English:
“I will tell you a story of five blind men. There was a procession in a village in India, and all the people turned out to see the procession, and specially the gaily caparisoned elephant. The people were delighted, and as the five blind men could not see, they determined to touch the elephant that they might acquaint themselves with its form. They were given the privilege, and after the procession had passed, they returned home together with the people, and they began to talk about the elephant. ‘It was just like a wall/ said one. ‘No it wasn’t/ said another, ‘it was like a piece of rope/ ‘You are mistaken/ said a third, ‘I felt him and it was just like a serpent.’ The discussion grew excited and the fourth declared the elephant was like a pillow. The argument soon broke into more angry expressions and the five blind men took to fighting. Along came a man with two eyes, and he says, ‘My friends, what is the matter?’ The disputation was explained, whereupon the new comer said, ‘Men, you are all right: the trouble is you touched the elephant at different points. The wall was the side, the rope was the tail, the serpent was the trunk and the toes were the pillow. Stop your quarreling ; you are all right, only you have been viewing the elephant from different standpoints.*’
Religion, he said, had become involved in such a quarrel. The people of the West thought they had the only religion of God, and the people of the East held the same prejudice. Both were wrong ; God was in every religion.
There were many bright criticisms on Western thought. The Christians were characterized as having a “shop-keeping religion.”‘ They were always begging of God – “Oh, God, give me this and give me that; Oh, God, do this and do that.” The Hindu couldn’t understand this. He thought it wrong to be begging of God. Instead of begging, the religious man should give. The Hindu believed in giving to God, to his fellows, instead of asking God to give to them. He had observed that the people of the West, very many of them, thought a great deal of God, so long as they got along all right, but when reverse came, then God was forgotten: not so with the Hindu, who had come to look upon God as a being of love. The Hindu faith recognized the motherhood of God as well as the fatherhood, because the former was a better fulfillment of the idea of love. The Western Christian would work all the week for the dollar, and when he succeeded he would pray, “Oh, God, we thank thee for giving us this benefit,” and then he would put all the money into his pocket; the Hindu would make the ottoney and then give it to God by helping the poor and the less fortunate. And so comparisons were made between the ideas of the West and the ideas of the East. In speaking of God, Vivekanandi said in substance: “You people of the
West think you have God. What is it to have God? If you have Him, why is it that so much criminality exists, that nine out of ten people are hypocrites? Hypocrisy cannot exist where God is. You have your palaces for the worship of God, and you attend them in part for a
time once a week,but now few go to worship God.It is the fashion in the West to attend church, and many of you attend for no other reason. Have you then, you people of the West, any right to lay exclusive claim to the possession of God?”
Here the speaker was interrupted by spontaneous applause. He proceeded: “We of the Hindu faith
believe in worshipping God for love’s sake, not for what he gives us, but because God is love, and no nation, no people, no religion has God until it is willing to worship Him for love’s sake. You of the West are practical in business, practical in great inventions, but we of the East are practical in religion. You make commerce your business ; we make religion our business. If you will come to India and talk with the workman in the fields, you will find he has no opinion on politics. He knows nothing of politics. But you talk to him of religion, and the humblest knows about monotheism, deism and all the isms of religion. You ask:
” ‘What government do you live under?’ and he will reply: ‘I don’t know. I pay my taxes, and that’s all I know about it.’ I have talked with your laborers, your farmers, and I find that in politics they are all posted. They are either Democrat or Republican, and they know whether they prefer free silver or a gold standard. But you talk to them of religion ; they are like the Indian fanner, they don’t know, they attend such a church, but they don’t know what it believes ; they just pay their pew rent, and that’s all they know about it – or God.”
The superstitions of India were admitted, “but what nation doesn’t have them?” he asked. In summing up, he held that the nations had been looking at God as a monopoly. All nations had God, and any impulse for good was God. The western people, as well as the eastern people, must learn to “want God,” and this “want” was compared to the man under water, struggling for air he wanted it, he couldn’t live without it. When the people of the West “wanted” God in that manner then they would be welcome in India, because
the missionaries “fould then come to them with God, not with the idea that India knows not God, but with love in their hearts and not dogma.
From Minneapolis, without even a day’s rest, Swamiji traveled to Des Moines, Iowa – a distance of well over 250 miles – and gave an informal talk on the afternoon of November 27 and a formal lecture that evening. This lecture had been announced somewhat breathlessly by the Des Moines News as follows:
The lecture event of the season will take place to-night at the Central Church of Christ when the Hindoo Monk will deliver his lecture on “The Hindoo Religion.” No thinker can afford to miss it.
On November 28, this same paper ran three items regarding Swamiji, one of which covered the informal talk and reception of the afternoon of the 27th. This I shall quote first:
On Monday afternoon, a small company were invited to the home of Dr. and Mrs. H. O. Breeden on Woodland Avenue, to meet the Hindoo monk, Swami Vivekananda, whose brilliant intellect made him one of the prime favorites of the parliament of religions, and whose lectures in Des Moines may be said to be of the era-making type. The distinguished oriental first gave an informal talk, in costume, on the manners and customs of India, and afterwards submitted to a running fire of questions from the guests, his witty and often sarcastic retorts proving highly entertaining.
The report of the evening’s lecture was given on the same page as the above. Although in spots, as will he seen, the reporter woefully failed to follow Swamiji’s argument regarding conversion, he captured enough of it to enable the reader who is familiar with Swamiji’s thought to comprehend his meaning. It is apparent that this was an exceptional lecture, embodying ideas which Swamiji did not often express in quite this same way:
Swami Vivekananda, the talented scholar from the far-off India, spoke at the Central church last night. He was a representative of his country and creed at the recent parliament of religions assembled in Chicago during the world’s fair. Rev. H. O. Rrecden introduced the speaker to the audience. He arose and after bowing to his audience, commenced his lecture, the subject of which was “Hindoo Religion.” His lecture was not confined to any line of thought but consisted more of some of his own philosophical views relative to his religion and others. He holds that one must embrace all the religions to become the perfect Christian. What is not found in one religion is supplied by another. They are all right and necessary for the true Christian. When you send a missionary to our country he becomes a Hindoo Christian and I a Christian Hindoo. I have often been asked in this country if I am going to try to convert the people here. I take this for an insult. I do not believe in this idea of conversion. To-day we have a sinful man ; tomorrow according to your idea he is converted and by and by attains unto holiness. Whence comes this change? How do you explain it? The roan has not a new soul for the soul must die. You say he is changed by God. God is perfect, all powerful and is purity itself. Then after this man is converted he is that same God minus the purity he gave that man to become holy. There is in our country two words which have an altogether different meaning than they do in this country. They are “religion” and “sect.” We hold that religion embraces all religions. We tolerate everything but intoleration. Then there is that word “sect.” Here it embraces those sweet people who wrap themselves up in their mantle of charity and say, “We are right ; you are wrong.” It reminds me of the story of the two frogs. A frog was born in a well and lived its whole life in that well. One day a frog from the sea fell in^that well and they commenced to talk about the sea. The frog whose home was in the well asked his visitor how large the sea was, but was unable to get an
intelligent answer. Then the at home frog jumped from one comer of the well to another and asked his visitor if the sea was that large. He said yes. The frog jumped again and said, “Is the sea that large?” and receiving an affirmative reply, he said to himself, “This frog must be a liar; I will put him out of my well.” That is the way with these sects. They seek to eject and trample those who do not believe as they do.
Swamiji’s next lecture in Des Moines was announced in this same paper, the Des Moines News of November 28:
“Reincarnation” will be the subject of Swami Vive-kananda’s lecture at the Central Christian church tonight. Those who heard the gifted Hindu monk last night will be glad of a second opportunity and those who did not are to be congratulated on the fact that they can still hear him. Do not fail to go.
Regrettably, no account is given in the Des Moines papers of this lecture on reincarnation. But on November 29 there is a short editorial in the Des Moines Daily News which shows that it was favorably received:
Dr. Breeden has conferred a real intellectual benefit upon this community by giving it an opportunity to hear the representatives of the Greek and Hindu religions discourse upon their favorite themes. There is a good deal of philistinism in America, and the west, which feels less of the influence of our foreign relations than is perceptible at the seaboard, is peculiarly liable to become a little narrow and intolerant in its excessive Americanism. The archbishop of Zante and the Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, have shown thinking people in Des Moines how possible it is to honestly view the problems of life from a point of view different from that of a busy, practical American.
Although the Archbishop of Zante, a delegate to the
Parliament, is mentioned in connection with Swamiji, it is apparent that he visited Des Moines at an earlier date. Unlike Swamiji’s lectures in Evanston which, as the reader will remember, were given in conjunction with Dr. Carl von Bergen, those in Des Moines were delivered alone.
During the short time Swamiji stayed in Des Moines he apparently electrified the city. The following item, a portion of which has been quoted in “The Life,” is from the Iowa State Register (date unknown):
Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu monk, spoke three times in Des Moines. During his stay in the city, which was happily prolonged by the cancellation of engagements farther west, Vivekananda met many of the best people in the city, who found their time well spent discussing religious and metaphysical questions with him. But it was woe to the man who undertook to combat the monk on his own ground, and that was where they all tried it who tried it at all. His replies came like flashes of lightning, and the venturesome questioner was sure to be impaled on the Indian’s shining intellectual lance. The workings of his mind, so subtle and so brilliant, so well stored and so well trained, sometimes dazzled his hearers, but it was always a most interesting study. He said nothing unkind, for his nature would not permit that. Those who came to know him best found him the most gentle and lovable of men, so honest, frank, and unpretending, always grateful for the many kindnesses that were shown him.
Vivekananda and his cause found a place in the hearts of all true Christians.
Unfortunately we now lose all trace of Swamiji until middle of January 1894, and a period of six weeks remains in total darkness. Although during this time he must have been extremely active, lecturing here and there in large and small cities, thus far all attempts to unearth information regarding his whereabouts have been in vain. But the search continues and hope is by no means given up.
At this point, I think it might be advisable to give the reader a brief picture of the Middle West in 1893, showing the kind of mentality with which Swamiji came in contact, the kind of people he met and what, on the whole, he was up against, for I believe that at least a general picture of the American scene in the eighteen-nineties is necessary to a true understanding of his lecture tour.
The nineties were strange and confused years. On the one hand, Americans looked backward into a more or less orderly century in which they had been robustly confident that they were headed toward a state of social perfection and that their nation was “a special object of Divine favor.” On the other hand, the nineties stared aghast into a new age in which the end was not at all certain. Economic and social conditions were undergoing rapid and radical changes with which the old moral and spiritual values could not cope. These values, moreover, were being attacked from within by the new physics and the new biology, to say nothing of Darwinism which had given a resounding blow to the doctrine of man’s unique position in the universe. The optimism and self-confidence that had characterized the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had suddenly given way to doubt and confusion. Nerves were on edge and, as in all transition periods, both the resistance to change and the attempts to adjust to it contained a note of hysteria.
As the story of the Parliament of Religions has shown, there were two very definite and clear-cut religious attitudes. One was that which clung to the^old order of things with the strength and ferocity of a death struggle. The denominations which held this attitude, and which were later to be characterized as “fundamentalist,” refused to give way either to Darwinism or to the social conditions which called for a broader and more liberal outlook than that of the nineteenth century. They resented the higher criticism and clung with fierce tenacity to a literal and rigid interpretation of Scripture. They had little use for the Parliament of Religions, and of course no use at all for Swamiji.
Liberal Christianity, on the other h£nd, had set itself to accept and incorporate into its tenets man’s new knowledge, and at the same time it attempted to socialize religion, conceiving it the duty of the church to examine such problems as the labor question, the growth of slums, the creation of huge and predatory fortunes, political corruption, and so on. It assumed a moral responsibility for man’s social and economic welfare and invaded the political field to the neglect of the spiritual. Secularization was the inevitable result. But nevertheless it was the clergy of this liberal Christianity which, priding itself upon its broad-mindedness, welcomed Swamiji. It was no accident that in every city he was almost invariably invited to speak at either a Unitarian or a Congregational church.
It has been said by some that the Transcendentalist movement, which took place earlier in the nineteenth century’, had prepared the American mind for Swamiji’s teachings. In a sense this is true, for the eyes of many had been opened to the life of the spirit by the writings of Emerson, Thorcau and even Bronson Alcott. Yet it is a fact that by the seventies those eyes had closed again. Transcendentalism had lost ground. It was no longer in tune with a generation that was becoming increasingly materialistic and which looked for a solution to its problems in a more down-to-earth and scientific philosophy. The vanguard of religious thought strove to come to terms with the findings of science, and the emphasis was now upon social reform in accordance with the laws of nature rather than those of spirit. It is true that such religions as Christian Science and New Thought were spreading rapidly, but by and large these religions emphasized man’s material rather than spiritual welfare. Only in so far as they asserted that man’s problems can be solved through regeneration of the spirit were they in sympathy with* the teachings of Swamiji. But even so theirs was a small voice scarcely heard ; it was drowned out by the most “respectable” liberal thought of the age, which insisted, as we have seen, that a change in human nature could be brought about only by first transforming the social environment.
While socialized Christianity, whose leaders and adherents were tofce found for the most part on the East Coast, fought for all manner of economic and social reforms, the “fundamentalists,” who predominated in the Middle West and South, busied themselves with frenzied attacks upon intemperance and vice. The “churchwomen” whom Swamiji mentioned during an interview in India no doubt belonged to this breed of reformer. Of them he said:
“These ‘churchwomen’ are awful fanatics. They are under the thumb of the priests there. Between them and the priests they make hell of earth and make a mess of religion. With the exception of these, the Americans are a very good people.”
These “churchwomen” were legion. Shrill and aggressively moral, they held up a distorted picture of what was at the time extolled as “pure and enlightened womanhood.” They formed innumerable committees and besieged and terrorized newspaper editors in their self-righteous crusades, sniffing out vice in every corner and finding it even where it did not exist.
A book which depicts this period speaks of this type of woman as “a terror to editors, the hope of missionary societies and the prey of lecturers. . . . Her performances were listlessly sanctioned by men whose covert emotionalism she openly and more courageously expressed in an instinctive envy of all that was free, cool or unhaltered in life, in art and affairs. She was an emblem, a grotesque shape in hot black silk, screaming at naked children in a clear river, with her companionable ministers and reformers at heel.”
These “Titanesses,” who for the most part inhabited the smaller cities and towns of the Middle West, were not content simply to seek out the depravity, real and imagined, of the large cities, but found a made-to-order outlet in the monstrous tales of “heathen” practices which for decades had been fed to them by the missionaries. There was something psychopathic about these women who turned a stiff, disapproving Backupon the real issues of the day and clung to an unphilosophical form of rigid Christianity which had nothing to do with the actual world in which they lived and thrived. Hypocrisy was rampant, and it is little wonder that Swamiji’s reproof became more and more forceful as he toured the Middle West.
It is hard today to grasp the enormity of missionary propaganda that held hypnotic sway over the American mind during the last half of the nineteenth century ; for ignorant and fanciful
as we may still be in regard to Hinduism, the ground has certainly been cleared of the more absurd and monstrous notions that flourished a half century ago. The following hymn is typical of the kind of thing that confronted Swamiji. It comes from a book entitled: “Songs for the Little Ones at Home” written
by a Christian missionary in India for the edification of the young:
See that heathen mother stand Where the sacred current flows;
With her own maternal hand Mid the waves her babe she throws.
Hark! I hear the piteous scream ;
Frightful monsters seize their prey,
Or the dark and bloody stream Bears the struggling child away.
Fainter now, and fainter still,
Breaks the cry upon the ear;
But the mother’s heart is steel She unmoved that cry can hear.
Send, oh send the Bible there,
Let its precepts reach the heart;
She may then her children spare –
Act the tender mother’s part.
In 1893 such verses, earnestly piped by “the little ones at home” were no laughing matter. Every level of society had been bombarded with falsehoods and slander regarding India. When Swamiji later said that all the mud on the bottom of the Indian Ocean could not balance the filth that had been thrown at his motherland, he was not exaggerating. Characteristic was a book entitled “India and Its Inhabitants.” It was first published in 1858 and comprises 335 pages of lectures delivered throughout America by a Mr. Caleb Wright, M.A., (no relation of Prof. John Henry Wright). On the title page is the information that “The Author Visited India and Travelled Extensively There,
For the Express Purpose of Collecting The Information Contained in This Volume” – information, one might add, which was predominantly false, calumnious and sensational. This book, profusely illustrated with line drawings and replete with moral reflections on the order of “Send, oh send the Bible there,” had a phenomenal success among the intelligentsia. A preface cites testimonials from the presidents of twenty American colleges who gave unstinting praise to the lectures of Caleb Wright. A comparison of two editions of the book shows that within a space of two years over 36,000 copies were printed.
And this was but one book among many of its kind. For decades before Swamiji came to America, missionary calumny against India had saturated the public mind and provided it with thrills of righteous horror. The atmosphere in the early nineties was still thick with ignorance and bigotry, poisonous to both America and India, and it was inevitable that Swamiji, confronted by so strongly entrenched and so pernicious an enemy to his motherland, would make every effort to combat it.
One indication that he gave serious thought to the missionary propaganda against India is the fact, recently come to light, that a few months after the Parliament he took the trouble to copy out in longhand on three sheets of letter paper a passage which portrayed the true missionary situation in India. A curious coincidence is connected with these pages, and before giving their contents I should like to digress a little to tell of it. It was through the kindness of Swami Vishwananda, head of the Vedanta center in Chicago, that these three pages, covered with Swamiji’s handwriting in pencil, came into the hands of Swami Ashokananda. Welcome as they were, they presented a mystery, for there was no indication from what source Swamiji had quoted, if he had quoted all. The only clue was a single notation in his hand on the Backof the third sheet, which read: “Louis Rousselet,” an unknown name which could mean anything or nothing. But while Swami Ashokananda was puzzling over the import of Swamiji’s writing, the San Francisco Vedanta Society received a packet of secondhand books that had been bought on sale, sight unseen. Among them was a large illustrated travel book on India, long out of print – by Louis Rousselet! On page 533 was the passage in question. For the reader’s information, the title of this book is “India and Its Native Princes – Travels in Central India and in the Presidencies of Bombay and Bengal.” It is a translation of the French “LInde des Rajahs” and was first published by Scribner, Armstrong and Co. in 1876. Later it ran into other editions. The passage which struck Swamiji and which, no doubt, was the first true account of India he had read for a long time, is given here precisely as he copied it:
Is there a people in the world more tolerant than this good gentle Hindoo people, who have been so often described to us as cunning, cruel and even bloodthirsty? Compare them for an instant with the Mussulmans, or even with ourselves, in spite of our reputation for civilization and tolerance. Only let a Chinese or an Indian come and walk in our streets during a religious festival or ceremony, and will not the crowd exhibit the most hostile feelings towards him if his bearing should not be in conformity with the customs of the country? Will his ignorance excuse him? I doubt it. And in what country could such a spectacle be witnessed as that which met my eyes that day in this square of Benares? There, at ten paces from all that the Hindoo holds to be most sacred in religion, between the Source of Wisdom and the idol of Siva a Protestant missionary’ has taken his stand beneath a tree. Mounted on a chair, he was preaching in the Hindostani language, on the Christian religion and the errors of paganism. I heard his shrill voice, issuing from the depths of a formidable shirt-collar, eject these words at the crowd, which respectfully and attentively surrounded him – “You are idolaters 1 That block of stone which you worship has been taken from a quarry, it is no better than the stone of my house.”
The reproaches called forth no murmur; the missionary was listened to immovably, but his dissertation was attended to, for every now and then one of the audience would put a question, to which the brave apostle replied as best he could. Perhaps we should be disposed to admire the courage of the missionary if the well-known toleration of the Hindoos did not defraud him of all his merit; and it is this tolerance that most disheartens the missionary one of whom said to me, “Our labours are in vain ; you can never convert a man who has sufficient conviction in his own religion to listen, without moving a muscle, to all the attacks you can make against it.”
This passage must have seemed like a refreshing oasis of sanity to Swamiji, and he copied it out for the benefit of friends. On the Backof the second page of his transcription there is the following notation in an unknown hand:
Written by Swami the 12th [really the 11th] of February – after dining with Mr. and Mrs. Woodhead and Carl Von Bergen – Before leaving us in the afternoon, he gave us one of his most wonderful efforts on spiritual things, “I say there is but one remedy for one too anxious for the future – To go down on his knees.”
– Mr. and Mrs. Norton came home with the girls in the evening. Swami left for Detroit Monday Feb. 13  – 1894.
The Parliament of Religions can perhaps be likened to a huge boulder dropped into the middle of a shallow pond, causing upheaval on all sides. Even without Swamiji the Parliament would have created no little confusion, for it was a shock to people to discover that Oriental priests were not on a level with grotesquely masked medicine men; but with Swamiji the effect was galvanizing and permanent. Something had happened in America that could never be talked away, although many an effort was made to do just that. From the very brief and general survey of the religious climate of America during the last decade of the nineteenth century which has been given above the reader may be able to deduce the various reactions to the Parliament.
But the repercussions were even more pronounced than one might have expected, and I know of no better way to study them than through the contemporaneous newspapers of a typical American city, for there one can sec the situation at first hand.
In “The Life of Swami Vivekananda” it is said: “In his
tours the Swami visited all the larger cities of the Eastern and Midwestern States,” and the list of these cities includes St. Louis, Missouri. But it would appear that Swamiji did not go there. A thorough search has been made of the St. Louis newspapers of 1893 and 1894, and no mention has been found of his lectures. This omission constitutes fairly conclusive evidence that St. Louis was not included in his itinerary. For wherever Swamiji went he made news, and it is unthinkable that the reporters of St. Louis would have failed at least to mention his presence. One explanation of this lies in the fact that, according to contemporary reports, St. Louis was for unknown reasons “a wretchedly poor lecture town,” and was no doubt shunned by lecture bureaus. But even if Swamiji did not lecture there, the city was not exempt from repercussions of the Parliament, and I think it will serve very well as our typical “case.”
The St. Louis Republic ran a column called “Sunday Thoughts on Morals and Manners.” It was written by an anonymous clergyman and is perhaps one of the finest examples that one could come upon of the religious mentality of the Midwest.
On September 10, the eve of the opening of the Parliament,
all was serene. The clergyman with admirable and placid broadmindedness invoked the blessings of God upon the Congress which was to open the next day:
There ought to come out of the parliament an authoritative statement of the creeds of the world, brought down to date, and revised into as close harmony with the age as possible – of rare interest and importance to all students of comparative religion. Thus far wc have been obliged to consult ancient authorities, or to grope after rare and sometimes inaccessible books, or else take the word of unfriendly critics, regarding the tenets of faiths beyond the Christian pale. It will be a gain worth the whoje cost of the parliament to get from these faiths themselves their raison d’etre. . . . Not that the faiths represented will fraternize. Far from it. They are essentially antagonistic and exclusive. Each claims all, or will accept nothing. But it is something to win the consent of their representatives to confer at all, and to make on a common platform an expose of faith and conduct.
Our clergyman immediately followed these reflections with statistical proof, for the benefit of “those who imagine that Christianity is declining” that, on the contrary, it was growing by leaps and bounds and that “the Electric Age, on whose threshold we stand, will bring in the greater part of the whole human race [to the Christian roster].”
By the following Sunday this quiet and reasonable clergyman had become transformed. The generosity and calm with which he had settled down to hear what the religions beyond the Christian pale had to say for themselves were no longer anywhere in evidence. He was raging mad. He wrote:
The reports of the proceedings of the Parliament of Religions, which assembled in Chicago last Monday, and is now in session, show, as might have been expected, an insistence upon the part of all the speakers that each one is eternally and exclusively right. This is especially true of the representatives of the various Oriental faiths. Claims are easily made – often out of wind! When claims conflict, the courts test them. Christ lays down a practical rule – “By their fruits ye shall know them 1 ” What are the fruits of the Oriental faith?
Take India. Polytheism prevails in the grossest forms. There are not less than 330,000,000 deities – enough to give each man, woman and child a god of his or her own. These are worshipped by impure rites, and exact on the part of their devotees self-torture, including in the case of widows burial or burning alive. The Hindoo is taught that these images are divine, and the heaviest judgments are denounced [pronounced] against him if he dares to suspect that they are nothing else than the elements which compose them. Cast is universal. Tyranny is immemorial. Woman is degraded. Polygamy abounds. Infanticide is common. Lying and theft are habitual. There is a want of tenderness toward and care for the sick, the poor and the dying. Ignorance and slavery and immorality compose the real trinity of Hindustan. These facts are undeniable.
“Sunday Thoughts” went on to give a brief outline of the faiths of Shintoism and Mohammedanism, which latter “came out of the distempered brain of the epileptic Mohammed.” This was the minister who had a week before serenely welcomed the opportunity the Parliament offered for the study of comparative religion. This indeed was the Middle West in its true colors, the thin veneer of liberality thrown to the winds.
The following week, as the Parliament drew to a close, our clergyman made it clear, lest anyone be misled, that nothing at all had been learned from the sessions other than what he had predicted in the beginning:
Perhaps the chief value [of the Parliament] will be found in the demonstration given of the universality of the religious instinct. . . . There is a difference as abysmal as the space that divides heaven and earth between the ethics of Confucius, the dreamy mysticism of Buddha, the mist and moonshine of Theosophy, the dizzy polytheism of Brahmanism, the ancestor-worship of Shinto and the Christian system. All that there is of sweet and pure and good in the other faiths Christianity contains in a higher development, with a super-added wealth of distinctive tenets all its own. . . .
We inscribe over it the old legend that was traced on the pillars of Hercules – Ne plus ultra.
Having settled this point, he deals another blow at Mohammedanism and then sits Backto pursue the unruffled and platitudinous tone of his column.
But not for long. The Parliament continued to rankle within him. On October 15, a large part of “Sunday Thoughts'” was devoted to a comparison of the Christian ideal of womanhood with that of “the semi-civilized peoples of the Orient.” He wrote:
The ethnic religions of China, India and Japan and the teachings of Islam are alike in making woman guilty of her sex and in giving her importance solely as an annex to man. . . . She must be “protected,” and to make and keep her willing to be “protected” she is dwarfed in mind, stunted in soul and prostituted to mere physical uses.
There is a great deal more in this same vein. The fact was that if anyone wanted to stir up hostility against a culture or a religion he could not do better than suggest, or boldly state, that its treatment of women was not all that it should-be. Never had American women been more conscious of themselves as women than in the nineties. One woman writer, an exception among them, summed up the situation with humor and objectivity. In an article entitled “Women’s Excitement Over ‘Woman,'” which was published in the Forum of September 1893, she writes:
Woman is a species of high and heroic and emancipated womanhood, as serviceable to the sex for the purposes of rhetorical and impassioned address, as that gentle and vapid species, “the Fair Sex,” is to men for after-dinner gallantry. She is wise with the wisdom of clubs and conventions and strong in her inheritance of instincts. There is nothing of which she is not sure, except that man was designed by nature to be her helper ; and there is nothing which she will not do for
the good of her own species, except do nothing…..She gets columns, nay pages, of the newspapers written by Her for Her
…. The magazines bow to the pressure of Her personality, and review Her profoundly in the light of history and of every possible and impossible modem circumstance.
All the missionaries needed to do in the nineties was to elaborate on the plight of the Hindu widow and they had the full force of outraged American womanhood ranged beside them. It was a force to be reckoned with and one which few editors dared oppose. It is little wonder that Swamiji so often spoke of the Hindu ideal of womanhood as he toured America, for this aspect of Indian culture had been dragged as far down as possible into the mud and there exploited for all it was worth.
In “Sunday Thoughts” of October 15 our clergyman made use of another current device – one which served many of his kind in getting around the inconvenient fact of the intellectual brilliance and moral grandeur displayed at the Parliament by the Oriental delegates. lie quotes the following item taken from a Chicago newspaper, the Interior: “. . . It is especially noticeable that most of the men who eulogized alien faiths were those who personally owed their intellectual quickening and their morals to contact with Christianity.”
But how was one to deal with Swamiji in this respect? The author of “Sunday Thoughts” maintained a judicious silence on the subject, and one can only imagine the intensity of his indignation when on October 30, 1893, Prince Wolkonsky, the Russian delegate to the Parliament who, as readers will remember, became a friend of Swamiji, spoke in St. Louis on his impressions of America. In the course of his talk which appeared in the St. Louis Republic of October 31, Wolkonsky said with his customary frankness:
Don’t ask every man: “To what church do you belong?” It is of no importance to you, but it is to him.
The question is: Is he a man? Judge him by what he is. The great value of the religious congress was that these people learned to know a man. There was one man there the embodiment of spirituality! I do not know what church he belonged to. He thinks and acts and speaks as a Christian. But you say he is not a Christian. So much the better. You say he is a Buddhist. Better still. If you belong to a higher religion you should try to be better still than he.
There can be no doubt that Wolkonsky was referring to Swamiji, whom many had taken to be a Buddhist and over whom Chicago had gone wild.
It wasn’t until February 18 that our clergyman had his answer ready. In one short paragraph he neatly disposed of Wolkonsky and Swamiji once and for all. It was the perfect retort. One can almost see him standing aside to watch the effect of it:
One of the picturesque figures at the Chicago Parliament of Religions was a Hindoo monk named Vivekananda. He impressed his hearers as being a man of remarkable intelligence and vivacity. Many thought highly of a religion that could produce such a representative. Now it transpires that he is a graduate of Harvard University. That is where all his Nineteenth Century notions came from. He is indebted to Asia only for his color and his costume.
The Christian clergy could now draw a deep breath. “Sunday Thoughts on Morals and Manners” however, does not represent the whole of religious thought in the Middle West. In their reaction to the Parliament of Religions not all clergymen resorted to a tempest of name-calling. The liberal section of the Christian church, which had already faced the fact that the Christian doctrine needed re-examining if it was to meet the requirements of the times, took a more serious and honest view of the situation. The St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, a far more liberal paper than the Republic, reflected this attitude in an article of October 2, which covered the sermons given on the Sunday following the close of the Parliament. Its headline reads: “Religious Provincialism” and subtitles: “It Has Received Its
Death Blow in America, says Dr. Snyder. The Parliament of Religions Discussed in Many Pulpits – Christianity Must Prove Its Superiority at the Bar of Public Intelligence.”
But whatever were the reactions to the Parliament of Religions, there can be no doubt that it had caused a ferment in the pulpits of America. Ministers ranted, reasoned and made resolutions regarding the necessity for self-examination. The storm extended as far as China, where, according to the St. Louis Republic of February 18, 1894, a religious Parliament, composed of the various missionary elements at work there, was held for “Mutual encouragement in the one great mission of Christian enlightenment”
But repercussions of this sort were not all: something else happened. A nation-wide religious revival of immense proportions took place. People suddenly began to rush to the churches in overwhelming numbers. According to the St. Louis Republic of January 21, 1894:
Revivals are being held everywhere, and the accessions to the church are gratifying results that prove the stability of the great truths taught by the prophets
of old, and explained by Christ himself… In
New York, Boston, Philadelphia and even in San Francisco, the work is being carried on by religious workers with unusual success, and the new year promises to be as productive of good results as the years of 1857-58, when failure after failure created distrust in the permanence of things of earth. . . . The present generation watching the mighty strides of progress and struggling in the vortex of business cares, has been prone to adopt the negative creed of the Pantheist or to answer in the easy manner of the Agnostic; but now, in the time of trouble, the soul instinctively seeks its Maker and a tide of religious sentiment is rushing with an irresistible current, cleansing sinful lives and carrying away the barriers of sin. . . . Evangelists, zealous workers, are converting sinners everywhere and the light of gospel, with incomparable radiance, is Hooding the land.
On January 29, 1894, the St. Louis Republic again covered the religious revival in a front page dispatch from New York, headlined: “A Religious Wave Now Sweeping Over New York and Brooklyn” The article reads in part:
Church workers in New York think that a tidal ? wave of religion has been fairly launched in the United
States and is fairly settling over New York and Brooklyn. Revival meetings are being held in more than half of the churches in Brooklyn, and ministers in New York are joining the crusade. . . . Now from all parts of the country the news is coming of a religious awakening, promising to surpass in magnitude that one of the past. . . . Ministers from every portion of the City of Chun:lies reported renewed interest; there seemed to be remarkable religious feeling. At last evangelists were engaged. Meetings have been held daily in half a dozen places. Hundreds and hundreds have risen for prayers, and thousands have promised to lead a better life. Last Sunday the new acquisitions to the membership of the churches of the city [Brooklyn] aggregated nearly 500. . . . Last week the Central Committee [a body made up of 17 clergymen of all denominations] decided that the movement had assumed such proportions that the body could not adequately take care of it, so the responsibility was delegated to the rightful authorities and notice was given that every pastor in the city must attend to those nearest his own doors.
For three weeks meetings have been held in 13 churches every evening. During the day two meetings have been kept up. This week more churches will be opened every night and the day meetings will be continued. The attendance at all of these meetings has been phenomenal. Every church is crowded. People willingly stand for hours. “After meetings” draw more people than ever. They seem loath to leave the church. The revivals of to-day are conducted very differently from those of 10 years ago. The old way was to frighten sinners with terrible stories of an everlasting hell until they were driven, from sheer sense of fear, into the inquiry room, where “experience meetings” were . depended on to do the rest. All is now changed. The all-powerful love of Jesus Christ is the appeal. God’s love and forgiveness the theme.
The St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat also covered the
religious revival, devoting, on February 4, 1894, more than a full page to a statistical report of conversions in five states. The article consists almost solely of the names of the churches in 177 counties and the number of people who had recently joined them. I cannot imagine anyone sitting down to read this, and fortunately the essence of the whole story is told in the following headlines: “THE CHRISTIAN HARVEST. Astonishing Results of Religious Revivals in the West. Nearly Fifty-Four Thousand Conversions Since Last September. Churches Strengthened by Forty-Nine Thousand New Members. A Religious Awakening Almost Unprecedented in Extent and Power. Special Reports from Globe-Democrat Correspondents, Covering One Hundred and Seventy-Seven Counties in Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Texas and Arkansas.” I hope the reader will note that the figures given pertain to live states only, and that he will also note that the revival started in September, 1893 – the month of the Parliament of Religions.
It is always a problem for historians and psychologists to explain what incites such phenomena as the sudden conversion of thousands upon thousands of people. Perhaps many fortes are at work. In this particular case one can clearly see at least three. First, the obvious one: there was at the time a financial depression. Second: the Christian clergy had been pressed by the unexpected outcome of the Parliament to stir up Christian fervor. And third, and I believe most important: there suddenly appeared in America one who embodied a spiritual power of the very highest order.
The most remarkable thing about this revival of 1893 was the unmistakable atmosphere of joy which pervaded it and which distinguished it from revivals of earlier times. A new note had been struck in the exhortations of the ministers. The clergy no longer hammered, as they had done in previous revivals, upon the imminence of hell-fire and eternal damnation, terrorizing their parishioners into a hysterical surrender. Now the emphasis was upon God’s infinite mercy, the glories of heaven. People were not hounded to church; they poured in and sang their hymns with an irrepressible elation.
A reporter in the St, Louis Republic remarked upon this .change of attitude from that of the old days in a lengthy article entitled “In The Olden Time. The article concludes with the following paragraph:
[The old time exhorter’s] spirit is the distilled essence of vinegar mixed with the extracts of wormwood and gall and his dolorous voice sounds the funeral knell of his parishioners* hopes for happiness on earth. Happily, this class of exhorters is dying off rapidly and the penetrating rays of the true conception of God’s mercy are penetrating the fastnesses and jungles in which the somber exhorter had so long held forth.
But aside from the change in the voice from the pulpit, there was a spontaneity in the response which took even the clergymen by storm and which makes it difficult not to believe that the advent of so great a prophet as Swamiji had stirred the spiritual forces latent in America and awakened such a hunger for spiritual sustenance that men and women everywhere eagerly rushed to satisfy it, flocking in droves to the religion closest to them, in whose tradition they had been reared and with whose doctrines and forms they were familiar.
Swamiji’s fame, as we know, had spread like wildfire through America both during and after the Parliament of Religions. Swain i Abhedananda, who knew at first hand the American reaction to him, said in a lecture delivered on March 8, 1908, before the Vedanta Society of New York: “During the last
decade there have been few pulpits in the United States which have not held preachers who have had something to say either for or against the teachings of the world-renowned Swami Vivekananda.*’ Swamiji’s message was spread far and wide. In one guise or another it becameTknown to the people, and it cannot but be supposed that a surge of genuine religious feeling came as a result of this great current of fresh thought from the East, which was given with the full vigor of a spiritual power such as the world has rarely known. Such power moves silently and invisibly but surely, working on all levels, churning the surface into a foam, as well as altering forever the deep, hiddeq currents of the spiritual life of a whole people. It was the latter result for which Swamiji had come, but the former was bound to take
place,and when one thinks of it,it would seem more a matter
for wonder if something of this sort had not taken place than that it had.