Swami Vivekananda was an Indian religious teacher who trained under the Indian mystic Ramakrishna. Vivekananda was invited to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where he gave a speech about Hinduism to the World’s Parliament of Religions. Vivekananda’s speech generated interest in Hinduism in the United States. In fact, it was the first time that many Americans had even heard of Hinduism.
Vivekananda’s speech promoted Vedanta, a Hindu school of philosophy based on the Vedas, the sacred scriptures of India, and their affirmation of the oneness of existence, the divinity of the soul, and the harmony of all religions. Vivekananda reminded his audience that all religions “have a place in the Hindu’s religion.” The Hindus “received their religion through revelation of the Vedas.” These sacred scriptures are without beginning or end. They contain spiritual law. The discoverers of the laws in the Vedas are called Rishis and many Rishis are women. This reference to women was likely intended to appeal to women in the United States who were fighting for their civil and religious rights, and the right to vote. Vivekananda hoped Hinduism would appeal to them.
Vivekananda also argued that the soul evolved from matter and comes down to us from past lives. Death is the movement of the soul from one body to another. Hinduism does not call people sinners. Rather, Hindus are “children of immortal bliss.” The Vedas teach a doctrine of love that was taught by Krisha, God incarnate on earth. The Vedas also teach that the soul is divine. It is only “held under the bondage of matter.” Perfection will be reached when that bond is burst. This freedom is called Mukto, which is freedom from death and misery. Hinduism does not have doctrines or dogmas. Hinduism is not about believing, but about being and becoming. When a soul reaches perfection it is no longer an individual, but becomes one with the Brahman. Sciences supports this unity in Hinduism. Vivekananda reminded his audience that Hinduism is not polytheism. There are many ways to get to the one truth. Hinduism does not abhor images and material objects in religion. He argued that “we can no more think about anything without a material image than we can live without breathing.” Images and material objects were essential to life, particularly religious life. Man is to use these images and objects to recognize that he is divine and to become divine. Man uses materials to progress to his realization of divinity. Thus, it is not right to call the use of materials in worship a sin.
Hinduism represent the unity of all religions in all people. Every religion is meant to evolve a god out of man. Vivekananda called Americans to this realization and to accept Hinduism as the one true religion. In fact, Hinduism had a special place in America’s progress. Vivekananda urged his audience, “It was reserved for America to proclaim to all quarters of the globe that the Lord is in every region….Hail, Columbia, motherland of liberty! It has been given to thee, who never dipped hand in neighbor’s blood, who never found out that shortest way of becoming rich by robbing one’s neighbors—it has been given to thee to march on in the vanguard of civilization with the flag of harmony.” Vivekananda argued that Hinduism was a modern religion for modern people. It included many aspects of Protestantism, but was better and had progressed further than Protestantism.
Excerpt from Swami Vivekananda. “Hinduism as a Religion” and “Farewell.” In American Religions: A Documentary History, 402-410. Edited by R. Marie Griffith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.