I got the World's Parliament of Religions on the brain lately. A few weeks ago marked Swami Vivekananda's 150th birthday. That got me thinking about Vivekananda's role in American religious history and my dissertation, especially his famous speech at the Parliament and the thundering applause he received. Then I spent most of the day Friday revising the final chapter of my dissertation, the chapter all about Hinduism at the Parliament. As I was revising I re-read the following quote from one of Vivekananda's speeches at the Parliament.
“We who come from the East have sat here on the platform day after day and have been told in a patronizing way that we ought to accept Christianity because Christian nations are the most prosperous. We look about us and we see England, the most prosperous Christian nation in the world with her foot on the neck of 250,000,000 of Asiatics. We look back into history and see that the prosperity of Christian Europe began with Spain. Spain’s prosperity began with the invasion of Mexico. Christianity wins its prosperity by cutting the throats of its fellow men. At such a price the Hindoo will not have prosperity.
I have sat here today and I have heard the height of intolerance. I have heard the creed of the Moslem applauded, when today the Moslem sword is carrying destruction into India. Blood and the sword are not for the Hindoo, whose religion is based on the law of love."
I love this quote for two reasons. First, I love it because it completely undercuts two major interpretations of the Parliament in the academic literature. This quote is certainly not part of the "dawn of religious pluralism" in America. Nor is it an example of how the Parliament birthed comparative religion in America. No, it is a quote dripping with blood. It is anti-Christian and anti-Muslim. It's the sort of thing we hope a student doesn't say in an intro to religion course. The second reason that I love the quote is that it was hidden. John Barrows, a Presbyterian minister and the man behind the Parliament, did not include this particular speech in his history of the Parliament papers and proceedings. Nor does it appear in Walter Raleigh Houghton's anthology of Parliament papers. As far as I can tell it was only published in the Chicago Daily Tribune on September 20, 1893. The headline read "Hindoo Criticises Christianity."
American religious historians have not spent a lot of time or words on the Parliament lately. Around 1993 its centenary gave it a brief breath of new life. Most recently our blog's very own Kathryn Lofton offered her interpretation of the Parliament within a larger argument about the relationship between religious studies and religious history. But this lost quote gives me pause about any interpretation of the Parliament that doesn't render it as deeply conflicted and cacophonous. There seems to be a resurgence of studies of liberal religion in our field--a resurgence I welcome. So perhaps it is time to reevaluate the Parliament and its place in American religious history, American liberal religion, and comparative religion in America. What is the place of the Parliament in American religious history? I'd love to hear your answers. I'll get you my answer when I finish revising this chapter.