On this date, 125 years ago, a young Hindu monk from India opened the World Parliament of Religions with an electrifying speech that brought the assembled representatives of the world’s major religions to their feet.
Swami Vivekananda had come to Chicago with no formal connection to parliament, but nevertheless managed to secure an invitation to deliver not just a keynote speech, but several other speeches. More than 6,000 people crowded into the meeting room of the Permanent Memorial Art Palace, now the Art Institute of Chicago, to hear the young man speak. With passion and eloquence, Vivekananda called for an end to religious fanaticism and intolerance, expressing the kind of global inter-religious dialogue the parliament wanted to create. It was a galvanizing moment that not only introduced Hinduism to the United States, but also almost instantly established Vivekananda as a prominent religious figure of the time and beyond.
Born into an aristocratic family in Calcutta, Vivekananda showed an early inclination towards spirituality. Through his guru, Ramakrishna, he learned the tenets of Hindu philosophy and embraced the belief that all religions are true and that service to man was the most effective worship of God. After the death of his guru, Vivekananda became a wandering monk, touring the Indian subcontinent extensively and gaining first-hand knowledge of the harsh conditions facing his country. After his famous presentation to the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, he became one of the leading ambassadors of India’s spiritual heritage, traveling widely throughout the United States and Europe, spreading the principles of Hinduism.
The Art Institute has engaged in a number of projects recognizing Vivekananda’s historic address. A plaque marks the approximate location of the vast assembly hall now occupied by Fullerton Hall and the grand staircase of the Woman’s Board.
In 2011, Indian artist Jitish Kallat linked the date of Vivekananda’s speech, 9/11, to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with Public Notice 3a site-specific installation that converted the text of Vivekananda’s speech into LED displays on each of the 118 risers of the museum’s Woman’s Board Grand Staircase.
A year later, the Art Institute, in collaboration with the Republic of India, established the Vivekananda Memorial Program for Museum Excellence, a four-year project designed to foster professional exchanges between the Art Institute and various museums in India.
Today, on the occasion of the 125th anniversary, we invite you to read the entire speech of the “Sisters and Brothers of America”, whose message of peace and tolerance is more relevant than ever.
Learn more about the 1893 World Parliament of Religions.